Where did the Environment Go at International Conferences? A Critical Appraisal of the Rio+20 Approach

To be completely upfront with everyone, I have this crazy belief that international environmental conferences should discuss the environment.  You can disagree with that belief, but it seems fairly reasonable.  This does not mean they should exclusively talk about the environment, but that it should share the stage with development, green technology, social concerns, etc.

This summer, hundreds of heads of states, thousands of NGOs, and other observers will come together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil  for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  The goals of the conference are clear: A) The Green Economy in the Context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication and B) The Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development.  Every decent definition of ‘sustainable development’ includes some form of environmental concerns in its articulation.  And yet, so far in discussions for Rio+20, the environment has been notably absent.  Where did it go?

History of the Environment in International Conferences

The history of large, multilateral environmental conferences has three clear signposts: Stockholm Conference in 1972, Rio Conference in 1992, Johannesburg Conference in 2002.  Rio+20 is the fourth large project involved taking place the summer of 2012.  There are multiple ways to look at these signposts (in terms of the infrastructure they created, in terms of projects they initiated, as signals of politics of the environment, etc.), but they serve as key junctures to follow and understand politics.  And yet, they show a clear removal of the environment from their concerns.

Here is a set of word clouds made with the good technology at Wordle.net.  The idea is simple: more used words become bigger.  Less used words become smaller.  They present a fun way to track the prominence of ideas across the signposts.

Stockholm meeting in 1972 gave rise to the United Nations Environment Programme and started a series of efforts at international environmental management around the world.  In the Stockholm Declaration that developed out of the meeting, “Environment” was central.  Other concerns, “Development”, “Economic”, “Resources”, “Social” are less prominent but still significant parts of the overall declaration.  Did it pay enough attention to development?  Probably not.

The Rio Declaration in 1992 followed up with another broad statement.  The World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) were both created out of the meeting, adding to the infrastructure.  “Environment” and “Development” share the prime location in this declaration: not surprising for the Declaration on Environment and Development.  Other key ideas about economic, degradation, partnerships and participation, and mainly sustainable fill out the declaration.

World leaders again came together in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.  By this point, development and its friend sustainable took the prominent role of ideas in the declaration.  Environment was now one term among others, about as prominent as children.  Few other environmental terms elevate highly either: “Resources”, “natural”, and even “social” are all in the large set of terms surrounding sustainable development.

In preparation for the 2012 Rio+20 Conference this summer, the Commission on Sustainable Development has prepared a “Zero Draft” for discussion before the conference.  Although negotiations have begun on reforming the Zero Draft and it will undoubtedly change, it provides a good idea for the lead-up to the meeting.  Sustainable Development similarly forms the backbone for this discussion, with no other substantive terms even close in terms of prominence.  Some terms with some prominence though are “economic”, “poverty”, “social.”  Most importantly, “Green” has appeared on the scene being largely absent in earlier conferences.  Environment though has been all but removed from the discussion, finding a little room.

(Edit: To see the final negotiated draft text word cloud, see here)

What happened to the Environment?

We know there has been a serious reduction in the role of the “Environment” over the series of international conferences.  Sustainable development to be even marginally effective must consider environmental, poverty, and social issues in somewhat equal fashion.  So, what happened to the environment?

  1. Sustainable Development took over.  Development concerns were not marginal at Stockholm, but starting in Johannesburg and undoubtedly continuing in Rio+20, the focus has been on sustainable development primarily.  Some may contend that the needs changed shifting from one of environmental protection to one of integrating environmental issues into development decisions.  Sustainable development, rather than just the environment, became a crucial way to integrate in the various voices that were attending these international conferences.
  2. We got more Technical.  Some may argue that the environment is a broad concern and throughout the years we have gotten more technical with focuses on sustainable development, green technology, partnerships and participation, etc.  Reading over the various declarations though should give little belief in this argument: they remain broad and non-specific even in later drafts.
  3. Green stole the Environment’s identity.  Green became prominent in these declarations when environment hit its low point and became largely secondary to most other issues in the discussion.  Has this color, applied widely in both nature and human constructions, taken over the role of the environment?  It seems to be a plausible case.  One must wonder though about the impacts of this shift and whether it has given up trying to address environmental harms in exchange for green technology fixes to serious resource problems.

The rise of sustainable development in itself does not necessarily mean that the environment has to become secondary.  Similarly, promoting green technology and innovations does not mean that the environment needs to decrease in prominence.  But that is what has happened.

The Environment is a crucial component of any effective sustainable development international road map.  It is not any more essential than is social concerns, development concerns, poverty concerns, food concerns, democracy concerns, and others. However, it is necessary to retain a centrality for the environment shared with these additional concerns.  To do otherwise, is unlikely to yield positive impacts for any of these concerns.

Rio+20 negotiators would do well to make sure that any declaration adequately prioritizes the environment and environmental concerns as the basis for development, poverty eradication, and the journey to a better future for all.

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3 thoughts on “Where did the Environment Go at International Conferences? A Critical Appraisal of the Rio+20 Approach

  1. Pingback: Does the Global Environmental Political System need an Overhaul at Rio+20? « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Women, Children, and Indigenous People Last: Do broad platitudes at international environmental conferences matter?? « Lullaby of the Commons

  3. Pingback: Rio+20 Outcome Text In A Single Picture « Lullaby of the Commons

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