Rio+20 Countdown: Who is to blame for the weak text at Rio+20?

This is Part 25 (and last) 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.


This post isn’t going to win me any friends….

Brazilian Delegation Celebrating Completion of Proposed Rio+20 Declaration Text. Source: IISD

So, on June 19th, 2012 around midday, preparatory negotiations on the Rio+20 text wrapped up with a proposed text.  The Brazilians celebrated as shown above, some countries questioned the proposed draft (click the link for great coverage of the plenary), and in the end they produced a document generally agreed to.   I expect there to be a few changes to this document, but barring a significant political success, these will be mostly cosmetic.  The result is a largely vague document that puts most issues off until later date and reiterates earlier agreements rather than coming up with new agreements.  Not one to mince words, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace called the agreement the “Longest Suicide Note In History.” In more diplomatic terms, a country delegate reiterated that point saying (source: ENB): “We have postponed the decisions.  I don’t think we have really something to be proud of.”

My opinion (today) is that the text pushes few additional new agreements, some areas of potential a week ago (like institutional framework and sustainable development goals) fizzled and became issues to be discussed later, and that the document opens doors but does not push us through any door at all.  A week ago, I was moderately hopeful: not that the agreement would achieve everything, but that it would take us in some positive direction.  Quite honestly, I though Sustainable Development Goals would be the big outcome of the conference, and we would see those provide a key sustainable development agenda for the next decade.  If the committee gets together and pushes it through these may be something, but once again what is coming out of Rio+20 could have happened in a UN General Assembly meeting.  But it looks like it is not to be and the only conclusion is to find that functionally Rio+20 negotiations have resulted in no substantive agreement.  [Being written at 10:00 PM on 6/19/2012- if high level talks change this, I’ll revise but this seems unlikely]

So, who is to blame for this outcome?

A view of dais after the adoption of the text during the closing plenary of the pre-conference informal consultations (l-r): Nikhil Seth, Director, Division for Sustainable Development, UNCSD Secretary-General Sha Zukang, Izabella Teixeira, Brazilian Environment Minister, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, and Amb. Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, Brazil. Source: IISD

Let me start by saying that no one is to blame for lack of effort, skill, or work.  Everyone at Rio has been tremendously focused, hard-working, and put in full effort and every person working on it for months now deserves credit and praise for their hard work.   But, sometimes thousands of people working together just doesn’t produce dinner.  So, who may have contributed to the weak text at Rio+20:

  1. The United States.  In terms of Rio (1992) outcomes, the U.S. has ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (but not the Kyoto Protocol), it has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity or either the Cartagena or Nagoya Protocol, and it has ratified the United Nations Convention Concerning Desertification.  But, the past decade has been one of U.S. leadership in obstructing agreements: being strongly opposed to both strong requirements on itself and, if the agreement would require little effort by the U.S., funding for projects elsewhere.  So, it should not be surprising that they appear to be the leader on blocking institutional reform, oceans biodiversity agreements, and other aspects of the agenda.  It isn’t that they are the only roadblock, some of the objections are certainly shared by other actors, but it would be great if they were a crucial leader in pushing environmental efforts forward.
  2. The G77/China.  The other end of the issue is the G77/China delegation which was not as coherent as a block as it had been at Rio (1992) or other conferences.  Africa endorsed upgrading UNEP, some aspects pushed for serious efforts on Oceans and other issues.  The finger pointed at the G77/China comes about both becauseit did not develop a new grand compromise, it splintered on some key issues (with OPEC states breaking off usually), and they resisted efforts to integrate development and environmental concerns more fully.
  3. Civil Society.  They have been incredibly active, impassioned, and coherent.  The counter conference with NGO reps is a great time with very active engagements.  However, they have chosen to focus attention in ways that did not focus attention on key points but drove the discussion elsewhere.  The #EndFossilFuelSubsidies twitter storm and political protest, for one example, was a coherent pressure on negotiators.  But, it made me wonder what would have happened if they had focused on Sustainable Development Goals or some other core issue that was tenuously hanging.  I’m not sure the campaigns really worked effectively at shaping negotiations.  (Note: when I look back in a year and write a post about the Rio+20 impacts, civil societies activities may prove to be key–but mostly those outside of RioCentro).
  4. The E.U.  European Union negotiators did a great job trying to push negotiators forward.  But, in the end, they aren’t going to get a lot out of the formal negotiations.   They were distracted (to be discussed below) and so couldn’t be expected to hold the whole thing together.  But it looks like it is going to get to the point where those states, like EU, are going to have to not just pull their weight, but actually pay triple for the system.  It also seemed like if they would have given in on not upgrading UNEP they could have gotten some significant infrastructure reforms from the U.S. and others.
  5. Technology.  By far my favorite blog about Rio+20 was posted today by Responding to Climate Change, here’s a part: “Langston Goree is Director of International Institute of Sustainable Development Reporting Services – possibly the most comprehensive source of micro-talks detail you’ll find – relied upon by NGOs, journalists and negotiators alike.  But the target of his ire is not the humble ipad.  It’s overhead projectors – which he says are a major source of trouble at the talks.  They allow changes made by countries to be automatically seen and debated as opposed to the situation 20 years ago when the chair would listen, reformulate and feed back into the talks.”  The Air Conditioning upgrades over the past 20 years may also be an influence (seriously); regardless, everyone should read this article.
  6. The Business and Corporate Sector. Negotiators deal with an entire text, civil society contributes to most aspects of that entire text, academics and international lawyers reflect on its holistic impact, but the business sector has kept a single focus on the small parts of the issue that impact them and been generally uninterested in other issues.  Business and corporate sectors have been prominent in the preliminary negotiations and at the meetings in Rio.  But, because of the narrow focus they contribute little to getting significant progress.  [UPDATE 6/23/2012- Gro Harlem Brundtland identified corporate power as one of the key blocking forces at Rio+20 Conference.  The BBC report reads: “She said there were ‘complex reasons’ why governments had been unable to take the vision further – including the power of corporations. ‘I think [the allegation] is justified – it’s not the whole truth but it certainly is a big part of it,’ she said.”]
  7. Brazil. Brazil got forced into a bad situation and made the best out of it.  They were handed a text that had only about a third agreement and were told “Two days to manufacture an agreement.”  And they did so in a very assertive manner forcing a text.  However, there were no grand compromises on the table and Brazil fought opening up spaces for any bargaining or trades which would have improved the situation.  The result is a text that was put together section by section with no holistic essence that delays most action.  They did an amazing job taking little agreement to full (tacit) agreement in a few days, a task I’m not sure many other national delegations could have done; but the cost was any coherent agreement.
  8. Distractions.  Greece, Syria, Spain, etc. were pressing issues in the weeks leading up to the discussion.   There’s no way to know how they impacted the discussions, but the G20 meeting which could have been crucial to spurring action at Rio+20 was taken by these other pressing issues.  Don’t underestimate the impact that these other international issues can have on Rio+20 Conferences.
  9. Me. No, I’m not that important, but a million points of pressure from me were possible–changes in approach.   Maybe if I increase my personal sustainability, it will reduce the political holdout for the status quo.  Maybe not.  Either way, as all the people above work toward making Rio+20 work, I’m not going to be left behind.  It isn’t clear right now what the post-Rio+20 world looks like.  We know we have this text that has largely flopped…but it is now up to all of us to contribute in shaping the post-Rio+20 world.

One thought on “Rio+20 Countdown: Who is to blame for the weak text at Rio+20?

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

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