Rio+20 Countdown: When do Big Environmental Conferences work?

This is Part 2 of a series of blog posts leading up to the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 20-22.  The full series is available here.


As was discussed in Part 1 of this Countdown Series, the original Rio conference was a Big conference.  Two treaties were on the table and a third was being actively formed, a billion dollar environmental project finance organization was getting permanent approval, the first blueprint for sustainable development (Agenda 21) was being passed, the President of the U.S. attended…It was big.  The Rio+20 meeting is aiming to be different: no treaties are on the table, no significant rearticulation of funding appears eminent, the Rio+20 draft agreement appears to repeat Agenda 21 at most points, the U.S. President won’t be attending, etc.  There are some things that can be done in the last month (pressuring Obama to attend, for example) that can raise the profile of the event; but, fundamentally this will be a convention of a different type than the first Rio Conference.  The key question is: can we win big, by going small?  The first part of answering this is to figure out what we got out of going big?

Rio+Zero: The Results of the First Rio Summit

There have been three major international environment conferences.  Stockholm in 1972 set the initial agenda and created the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Rio in 1992 created three treaties (on Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Desertification), the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), and Agenda 21, a blueprint for implementing sustainable development.  Johannesburg in 2002 spurred discussion and funding for Type-II Partnerships, those that involved different groups (like businesses or NGOs) working with one another on environmental projects.  Rio+20 will be the fourth major global environmental conference and bring together thousands of actors from around the world.

However, this 20 year space between Rio+Zero and Rio+20 is a great opportunity to assess what we got out of the big conference.  How well has the first Rio conference helped us reach our goals.

  • How have the treaties fared?  One of the most significant aspects of the first Rio summit was that it led to three treaties being opened for signature.  A fourth treaty on Forests never reached even a basic level of agreement and so instead became the Forest Principles, a fairly limited set of recommendations.  But, how have the treaties fared.  The Climate Change treaty took a large step in creating the Kyoto Protocol (1997), but since then has been locked between countries that will not commit to anything (the U.S., China, India, Brazil, and now Canada) and countries that push for action but cannot bear the full cost themselves (Europe, Africa, and Small Island States).  Kyoto expires at the end of this year and there is, at the time of writing, no clear articulation of the treaty form that will come after it.  The basics of progress on Climate Change are fairly limited.  The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is notoriously broad and commits states to few requirements.  The big requirements have come in the form of two protocols: The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety governs the trade in genetically modified living organisms and the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing governs the distribution and exchange of benefits from exploitation or preserving of biodiversity.  The Cartagena protocol appears to be working well, but does not include any of the major exporters of genetically modified organisms.  Nagoya protocol has only been ratified by four countries so far, but is quite new.  But, the organization set some pretty basic goals for 2010 in terms of stopping the rate of biodiversity loss, and these targets were not met.  The United Nations Convention Concerning Desertification is the third major treaty and as yet has not yet developed clear monitoring of progress (although progress is being made), participation is not clearly developed currently, and land degradation has appeared to not be decreased at all since the treaty came into effect.  In terms of large-scale collective action to solve the problems, the three Rio Treaties have not been able to bring significant new rules to the fore to improve the global environment.  But, and this is key, they have spurred millions of small-scale projects, pilot efforts, and generally prevented significant rollback.
  • How has Agenda 21 done? Agenda 21 was an agreed-upon document of 351 pages of suggestions, guidelines, and other details regarding implementation of sustainable development goals.  Some parts of the document, barely needed saying (i.e. 18.2 “Water is needed in all aspects of life.”), while other provisions make clear statements of what targets should be in various areas (i.e. 18.12 provides a set of targets for countries in ways to negotiate shared freshwater resources).  It is hard to assess the impact of such a document because of its scope, its nonbinding nature, and its complex interaction with lots of areas at the same time.  However, a January 2012 report by the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future conducted a significant evaluation of the progress that had been made.  The review of Agenda 21 found that although the ideas of Agenda 21 had caught on to a larger extent, implementation of the agreement is “patchy” and, although there have been some best practice cases established, few of the goals of Agenda 21 have been reached.  The backbone of Agenda 21 was supposed to be significant funding from the developed countries to the developing countries in order to pay for the transition to sustainable development.  This Rio Deal though fell apart.  The report explains: “Funding arrangements and transfers of technology from developed to developing nations around the Agenda 21 outcomes have been not delivered as proposed.  No ‘additional resources’ were provided to facilitate the transition.  In fact, Official Development Assistance fell from $62.4 billion in 1992 to $48.7 billion in 1997.”  Agenda 21 has indeed influenced the agenda and become a common reference, like the Brundtland Report or the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment recently; however, Agenda 21 has seen poor implementation and generally decreased emphasis in the policies of many countries around the world.
  • How have the other things at Rio+zero done?  The first Rio summit produced a few other key projects: it created the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, it made the billion-dollar Global Environment Facility permanent, and it brought together a massive environmental NGO network in Rio.  If Agenda 21 is hard to assess, these are downright nearly impossible.  The UN Commission on Sustainable Development appears to have weakened UNEP because it has better access to the other parts of the UN System (UNEP located in Nairobi).  GEF has funded billions of dollars worth of projects, but no clear overall assessment has been conducted.  The environmental NGO network is located in every country in the world and formed in a largely pre-internet world.  Has it held together?  Where would we look?  Projects seem to have had variable success (GEF and the type-II Partnerships that NGOs have been crucial at creating), but the creation of a large forum, the Commission on Sustainable Development, appears to have had little to negative impact.

When do big environmental conferences work? They work when they bring attention to issues and when they spur lots of small-scale actions as a whole.  They do not seem to be particularly key at creating institutions, stringent international treaties, or large-scale rules between all parties.

The Rio+Zero summit produced a lot of big changes: Treaties, Agenda 21, and the creation of a new sustainable development forum.  These have all fallen relatively flat, as shown above.  Don’t despair though, because to ignore the impact that Rio+Zero had on world politics would be absurd.  Agenda 21 has set the agenda to a significant extent and created a basic reference across multiple parties around the world.  The treaties have at least created coherent work areas, and a breakthrough in Climate Change would probably not be possible without the infrastructure of the treaty.  But, the big impact seems to be that it has linked millions of actors around coherent plans of action. The NGO network, the projects funded by GEF and UNCCD are important, because they create room for transformations to be made smoother.

The crucial aspect then is that small scale action is the best that we’ve seen develop from the Big Conferences, so we shouldn’t despair that small scale action is the target of the Rio+20 conference.  That isn’t giving up, that is figuring out what the actual options are. The rest of this series will highlight the small scale action opportunities in the lead-up to Rio+20 and the way that each of us in our own roles can contribute to their success.


One thought on “Rio+20 Countdown: When do Big Environmental Conferences work?

  1. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown Review: The Impacts of the Identity Crisis at Rio+20 « Lullaby of the Commons

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