This is Part 8 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.
The plan was to start discussing the Sustainable Development Goals today, right before final informal negotiations are to begin (Update: The SDG post came later, here). However, yesterday in the Guardian, Gro Harlem Bruntland and Fernando Enrique Cardoso, two preeminent figures (or Elders) in the history of sustainable development, wrote an editorial plea before Rio+20 that deserves analysis.
The editorial begins with Brundtland and Cardoso joining the increasing chorus of people who are seeing opportunities wasted in the lead to the Rio+20 Conference:
But even our optimism is being seriously tested by the lack of urgency in the runup to the Rio+20 summit next month. The meeting provides a historic opportunity to chart a sustainable future for the world. But at the moment, there is a real chance the opportunity will be thrown away. Everything we have heard suggests that agreement on how to forge progress remains well out of reach. Countries are divided on both goals and means.
Following the first Rio Summit, the author’s find that sustainable development became a prominent idea for many world leaders and received its firmest enunciation in the Millennium Development Goals:
In the past two decades, the idea of sustainable development has revolutionised the thinking of millions. The understanding of our shared responsibility helped lead to 189 world leaders agreeing to the millennium declaration in 2000, which paved the way to the millennium development goals. In many countries, we have seen determined action to cut pollution and invest in renewable energy. Businesses now routinely look beyond the bottom line to consider the wider social and environmental impact of their decisions.
But, while there has been recognition of the linkages between economy and sustainability, the collective will to spur action has not followed. Brundtland and Cardoso write:
we have not yet seen the necessary courage or political will to turn good intentions into effective, collective action. That political will and that courage is our common responsibility – only through us can it become the will of governments. Until then, the results of our inaction are all around us. Unsustainable patterns of production and consumption are still imposing excessive demands on resources such as water. We continue to alter our climate by polluting our atmosphere. Inequality between countries, and within them, is growing. The financial crisis and high food prices add to the challenge, and one in seven of the world’s population won’t have enough to eat today. Such extreme poverty increases the degradation of our environment. It is hard to focus on the long-term when you face a daily struggle to feed your family.
They propose four ideas to focus the attention at Rio+20
- Expand and deepen the Millennium Development Goals. Make the responsibility universal, but with unique national components.
- Need an institution that keeps sustainable development at the top of the UN Agenda. This could be a Sustainable Development Council at the high level of the UN.
- Ensure green technology is affordable and accessible to more people. “The lack of universal access to modern, sustainable energy has a major impact not just on climate change and tackling poverty but also health.”
- “True sustainable development hinges on much faster progress towards gender equality. Across the world, women still face barriers that prevent them playing their full role in our economies, parliaments and societies.”
The argument sets a clear and simple bar for progress in the Rio+20 agenda. In order for it to succeed it needs: Clear, universal sustainable development goals, institutional clarity and strengthening, encourage green technology flows cheaply, and improve gender equity. We’ll see after this week of negotiations where progress has been made on these issues, but currently it seems that negotiators will agree to the sustainable development goals and broad platitudes towards the rest. It is quite nice of the “elders” to not expect the world from the Rio+20 negotiations, but also not to let any of us off the hook. These four issues are significant, but not impossible and I think create a good criterion for success, partial success, or failure of the opportunity at Rio+20.
For ease of discussion, when talking about the informal negotiations this week, I’ll use these 4 proposals as the baseline for assessment. Providing a strong, yet achievable vision if we have, according to Brundtland and Cardoso, “courage and vision”