Rio+20 Countdown: Every issue or just a few?

This is Part 5 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.


Anyone who has run any meeting of any size knows that there are two broad ways of doing things: Everything and the kitchen sink method, where it all gets thrown in and then the post-meeting environment, or the Focused agenda method, where a few items are tackled in-depth and other issues are set for later.  Rio+20’s outcome appears to be a diffuse international order with individuals, companies, and governments rewarded more for sustainable choices.  Which method will help us develop a positive environmental system from this outcome?

Ban Ki-Moon took his power to the mass media today and wrote an editorial in the New York Times promoting the upcoming Rio+20 Conference and providing his suggestions.  He wrote:

First, Rio+20 should inspire new thinking — and action. Clearly, the old economic model is breaking down. In too many places, growth has stalled. Jobs are lagging. Gaps are growing between rich and poor, and we see alarming scarcities of food, fuel and the natural resources on which civilization depends.

At Rio, negotiators will seek to build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals, which have helped lift millions out of poverty. A new emphasis on sustainability can offer what economists call a “triple bottom line” — job-rich economic growth coupled with environmental protection and social inclusion.

Second, Rio+20 should be about people — a people’s summit that offers concrete hope for real improvements in daily lives. Options before the negotiators include declaring a “zero hunger” future — zero stunting of children for lack of adequate nutrition, zero waste of food and agricultural inputs in societies where people do not get enough to eat.

Rio+20 should also give voice to those we hear from least often: women and young people. Women hold up half the sky; they deserve equal standing in society. We should empower them, as engines of economic dynamism and social development. And young people — the very face of our future: are we creating opportunities for them, nearly 80 million of whom will be entering the workforce every year?

Third, Rio+20 should issue a clarion call to action: waste not. Mother Earth has been kind to us. Let humanity reciprocate by respecting her natural boundaries. At Rio, governments should call for smarter use of resources. Our oceans must be protected. So must our water, air and forests. Our cities must be made more liveable — places we inhabit in greater harmony with nature.

The Secretary General is certainly promoting the Everything and the Kitchen Sink method of deciding here.  He lists jobs, food shortages, fuel shortages, women’s equality, natural boundaries, oceans, smarter use of resources, air, freshwater, forests, and increasing harmony with nature.

Agenda 21, developed as a set of voluntary agreements in the first Rio Convention in 1992, is lengthy and touches on a lot of different issues, but it probably should be considered to be largely in the Focused Agenda method of approach.  Agenda 21 resulted from significant political wrangling and efforts by different groups to get their issues to the fore.  The result was 14 problem-areas for focus in the Agenda 21 document.  Not all are fully developed and some simply seem to be agreement by the states to work on an issue.  However, the 14 issue-areas, with some brief notes about what they specify, are:

  • Protection of the atmosphere (states agreed to action on atmospheric problems)
  • Land Resources (states agreed to create a monitoring and science system for the problem)
  • Deforestation (states agreed to improve national forest management procedures)
  • Desertification & Drought (states agreed to create national desertification management plans)
  • Mountains (states agreed to improve the knowledge of mountain ecosystems)
  • Sustainable Agriculture (states agreed to promote sustainable agriculture–not clearly defined)
  • Biological Diversity (states agreed to support the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity)
  • Biotechnology (states agreed to cooperate on improving knowledge and monitoring of biotechnology)
  • Oceans and seas (states agreed to improve protection of marine living resources in their borders and increase international cooperation)
  • Freshwater Resources (states agreed that freshwater needs attention)
  • Toxic Chemicals (states agreed to harmonize toxic chemical lists and work on risk reduction strategies)
  • Hazardous wastes (essentially states agreed to work toward joining the Basel Convention)
  • Solid waste and sewage (states agreed to improve waste water treatment)
  • Radioactive waste (states agree to safe treatment of radioactive waste)

Although even this list is lengthy, it is not fully integrated in terms of taking on wider social and economic concerns: like jobs, women’s equality, etc.  Not every at risk area was included, but instead mountains (deserts and small island states also) were focused on.

Rio+20 appears to be following the other method of including everything in discussion and letting the politics after the fact decide what sticks and what doesn’t.  Initially, the agenda was set to focus on  7 different Critical Issues: Jobs, Energy, Cities, Agriculture, Water, Oceans and Disasters.  The documents to actually articulate these though were quite lengthy.  At the end of the most recent preparatory meetings, the list included 31 different issues:

  • eradication of poverty
  • sustainable agriculture and food security
  • water and sanitation
  • energy
  • sustainable tourism
  • sustainable transportation
  • harmony with nature
  • sustainable cities/human settlements
  • health
  • jobs
  • oceans and seas
  • small island developing states
  • least developed countries
  • land-locked developing countries
  • Africa
  • other groups and regions with sustainable development challenges
  • disaster risk reduction and resilience
  • climate change
  • forests
  • biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • desertification, land degradation and drought
  • mountains
  • chemicals and waste
  • atmosphere
  • sustainable consumption and production
  • mining
  • education;
  • family
  • gender equality and empowerment of women
  • private sector
  • sustainable innovation and investment

The list of 31 items include some that were developed in Agenda 21 and through treaties since then and so may be a chance for negotiators to refocus attention on those problems (desertification, biodiversity loss, etc.).  Other issues appear to be an attempt to continue and maybe deepen the focus on the Millennium Development Goals. Currently most of these issues have significant brackets in the negotiations, brackets signify significant contention and lack of agreement about the words.

Still, some believe that getting the issue on the list is crucial for progress.  For example, on agricultural issues, Caroline Spelman, UK Secretary for the Environment, recently said: “Everywhere in the world, wherever farmers farm, should be put on a sustainable footing…Just imagine if we could move farmers from subsistence to sustainability.”  Others believe that freshwater resources, like agriculture key to both poverty eradication and environmental protection, may be a significant outcome of the Rio+20 process. Recent comments from the head German negotiator on the point are significant.  Still others emphasize corporate social responsibility as the crucial issue area.

Unfortunately at this point, such inclusion is likely to simply feed the areas that already get significant attention.  We should expect that if the list stays at 31 issue areas, that climate change, biodiversity, and cities will get significant continued attention and financing.  Mining, gender equality, and Africa are likely to retain their approximate prominence.

And this is the main risk of the Everything and the Kitchen Sink method.  I don’t think it necessarily trades off and capable negotiators will be able to reach substantive agreement on some of the issues and get least common denominator agreement on others, but that is a risk in big negotiations.  Treaties and large-scale conferences trying to produce collective outcomes can work with lots of issues if negotiators can focus.  When you have small scale governance as a desired goal, you have to be aware that Everything and the Kitchen Sink method means that the actors around the world get a long list of things to take account of without a clear priority.  That is problematic.

We can win big by going small.  We don’t need to overhaul the entire global environmental system in order to reach positive environmental and poverty outcomes.  But that task gets so much harder when we are given a list of 31 issues to focus on without clear guidance on them.  Inclusion of an issue in a long-list at Rio+20 will not help that issue rise.  Going small, which seems to be the outcome likely at Rio+20 can work–but not if it means working on everything at once.


2 thoughts on “Rio+20 Countdown: Every issue or just a few?

  1. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: Civil Society Can Choose Recognition or Responsibility « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: What are Sustainable Development Goals? Why Are they Important? « Lullaby of the Commons

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