Rio+20 Countdown Review: The Impacts of the Identity Crisis at Rio+20

June 20, 2012, the Rio+20 Conference opened with a gavel rap from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who declared that the Rio+20 Conference was a “beginning, not an end.”  Having said that, for the hundreds of negotiators who had hammered out the proposed outcome document, that gavel was the culmination of a lot of work. For the past month, I’ve had a Rio+20 Countdown blog series,with original analysis about many of the ongoing issues; this post aims to collect these together to fully understand why Rio+20 happened the way that it did.

Simply put: Rio+20 was a conference with an identify crisis.  It had all the outlines of a large ministerial conference, but without the agenda of a large ministerial conference.  As I’ll explain below: It was a Big Conference with a Small agenda, in that it sought not to pass treaties but hep billions of people choose sustainability.  This pull in two different directions had significant impacts on the Conference outcome.  Rio+20’s generally weak outcome may illustrate precisely the end of the Big Conference, which means now that our best hope is now in the Small Agenda.  To understand what that means requires us to look at Rio+20 and how the identify crisis caused it to falter.

Rio+20: A Different Type of International Environmental Conference

Rio+20 is not the same type of international environmental conference as Stockholm (1972), Rio de Janeiro (1992 Rio+0), or Johannesburg (2002 Rio+10).  Stockholm was the first major international environmental conference and created the United Nations Environmental Program through its negotiations. The first Rio Conference followed on the heals of progress in the 1980s with a successful Ozone treaty and protocols and the 1986 formal articulation in the Brundtland Report of the concept of Sustainable Development.  It thus both had treaties (on Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Desertification) and sustainable development guidelines (by creating the UN Committee on Sustainable Development [UNCSD] and Agenda 21).  Johannesburg furthered the later, while not having any treaties opened at the meeting, through the creation of Type II Partnerships for sustainable development.  These coupled NGOs, Governments (national and local), Businesses, and International Organizations together in a variety of different ways.  I’ve described these earlier efforts as Big conferences in that their goal was significant institutional creation (UNEP at Stockholm, UNCSD at Rio+0) and treaties.

Rio+20, from the very start, was going to be a different type of international environmental conference.  It’s aims were to deepen the integration of environmental sustainability into economic development and production and to shift global governance institutions toward this end.  Although there were serious talks about upgrading UNEP or elevating UNCSD, this wasn’t to create a new institution.  In addition, discussions about the Green Economy, quickly turned to promoting some key efforts and creating sustainable development goals to set the agenda after the Rio+20 conference.  One key aspect of this is that the international framework does not aim to direct actions but to instead facilitate action by civil society, nongovernmental organizations, business and others to take actions on their own.  Empowering billions of small actions could be politically easier, more cost effective, and long lasting than a single large-scale action.  This is why I’ve described the focus of the Rio+20 Conference as a Small conference.   Not because it is small in focus or scope or anything, but because its goals are to empower lots of small actions.

Big conferences did some amazing thing, but they had reached a large limitation.  Yesterday, Andresen and Underdal wrote a provocative editorial titled “We Do Not Need More Global Sustainability Conferences” in which they articulate the problem with the Big conferences precisely:

Global conference diplomacy can be an effective tool for setting agendas, learning and establishing an institutional setting for further negotiations. These were all important functions in the previous millennium…The notion of ‘sustainable development’ highlighted long-term common interests and facilitated agreement, facilitated by high-level political leaders. The Summit was a break-through for green NGO participation. It produced the remarkably ambitious Agenda 21 and served as the birth-place for important global conventions. These and other achievements seemed to confirm the value of such summits.

However, the Big environmental conferences were good at setting agendas and focusing attention, but less able to achieve some of their most ambitious projects.  Andresen and Underdal continue:

However, the aftermath showed their limitations as key promises were never delivered….In 2003 the UN General Assembly seemed to realize that a more selective and strategic approach was suggested. Some of us believed that this could be beginning of a more sharply focused approach. We were wrong.

Rio+20 was torn between being Big and Small at the same time.  High level negotiators were coming, they were going to produce a formal agreement, ministerial statements were going to be made, NGOs were there on mass, it was the test of a big event for Rio to host the World Cup, etc.  But, there were no treaties on the table, sustainable development goals, and the U.S. position prioritized small changes over big changes. In the end, this divergence tore the document apart.  The U.S. refused to budge on big issues and the small issues like sustainable development goals were postponed to a later date for lack of agreement.  The result is a text that was torn apart by fundamentally different goals: one is the pretty aspects of a Big conference (the ministerial speeches, the shiny new text, a few new terms) and the other is the gritty aspects of the small conference (the goals, institutions, and direction for all actors involved).

It is this pull between it being a typical ‘big’ conference and the ‘small’ aspects of the agenda that ended up shaping much of the outcome.  Divisions between the North (developed countries) and the South (developing countries) may have animated the original Rio Conference and Johannesburg, but the Big-Small pulls are what made Rio+20 a fundamentally different conference.

Will he come or not?  The Role of the United States

This pull had a serious impact on the role of the United States in the discussions.  Not so much preferring a strong Small system of international environmental governance, the U.S. position was to oppose the Big system.  Staunchly opposed to upgrading of UNEP or the CSD, the U.S. again and again made clear that Big bargains, Big reform, Big financing was not on the table.  And yet, they are the United States: the major world power with significant influence and importance.  So, the U.S. was caught between opposing Big aspects of the agenda, while being a very big player.

This played out most clearly in the question of Obama’s attendance.  A number of NGOs and UN high officials pressured Obama to attend, but that got stuck in the Big-Small trap.  If he attends, it is surely a Big conference and he may be expected to provide key leadership in breaking any deadlocks at the text.  This role did not suit him at Copenhagen, and so it was surely problematic.  At the same time, Obama’s attendance would increase media attention and maybe energize a wider NGO base, both of which are crucial for the small, bottom-up system to operate.  In the end, Obama opted not to attend the Conference, a move stuck in the Big-Small division but that did not help to clarify it at all.

Institutions for Sustainable Development

What are the right institutions to deliver sustainable development to the world’s population?  Some believe it is in new, or adjusted, multilateral institutions and this formed the basis for claims of upgrading UNEP or CSD.  Some sought rather just to give clear guidance to the institutions existing regarding their purposes.  At the very least, the confused and dense institutional space needed some clarity and focus out of Rio+20.  The pull here, between Big reform in the ‘constitutional moment‘ of Rio+20 and small focusing moves tore these aspects apart as well.

Some states, even this morning, are still talking about institutional upgrading while others have made it clear that they will not allow it.  The U.S. delegation even expressed that if institutional reform is opened for discussion from the draft document, they will unravel the whole thing.  Not blaming either side but compromise and bargaining could have happened but was blocked by the Big and Small pulls.  Because it wasn’t clear whether the conference was big or small, I think there was a key point lost for progress.  Institutional upgrading could have been a crucial outcome, but just a productively it could have been used by either side to get improvement on other issues.  But the dual-pull of Big and Small meant that instead they settled on nothing.  The institutional space got little clarification and confusion is bound to persist.

Sustainable Development Goals: Gutted

There was one option that seemed, to me, like it could have satisfied both Small and Big proponents: Sustainable Development Goals.  These goals would be, like the Millennium Development Goals which reach fruition in 2015, broad goals of environmental improvement, social advancement, and poverty reduction for all countries, but with unique ways for each state to meet those goals. Big proponents like them because they set a large agenda, small proponents like them because they have unique and country-specific ways to reach and because they set targets for civil society to criticize governments that fail to meet them.  The idea to pursue Sustainable Development Goals didn’t need a ministerial conference, it could have just come out of a UN General Assembly resolution.  What the Conference needed to do then was give some shape to them (set the themes) if not use the negotiating space to actually hammer out what the specifics of the goals would be.

But the Big and Small pulls once again made sure that the outcome was simply an agreement to pursue sustainable development goals.  Let me be blunt, when the Millennium Development Goals lapse in 2015, there was going to be a replacement for them.  So, the idea to create such a replacement is not profound or something that wouldn’t have already happened.   Rather than providing some key themes, or even whether those themes were to be intersectional or environment specific, the negotiators produced a least common denominator solution.  No agreement was made about what was going to be in Sustainable Development Goals and that may be the biggest loss of all.

Business and Sustainable Development: We’re already in the Green Economy!

Another point that notably hit the ground with a thud is the business aspects of the Rio+20 process.  Of all the Big conferences so far, this is the one that Business was most crucial in.  Aspects of the agenda include green technology, jobs and employment, and corporate sustainability reporting.  Small proponents had to be particularly excited that the Rio+20 Conference would provide us with at least some structure or requirements on business to adopt in ways they choose to do in their competitive environment.  There will be some voluntary pledges and movements by states and companies (for example, the UK pledge on sustainability reporting), but on the whole the Rio+20 outcome leaves Businesses in the exact same world they were before.

There was lots of discussion of Corporate Sustainability Reporting getting some boost out of the Rio+20 Conference.  That didn’t happen.  There was some discussion of defining precisely what the Green Economy would exclude (unsustainable mining practices for example).  That didn’t happen.  There was an attempt by NGOs to stop countries from giving trillions in Fossil Fuel subsidies to the most profitable sector in the world economy.  That didn’t happen.  There was a very interesting discussion about Trade and the Environment.  But, it resulted in pretty much a reiteration of the point that the WTO has been at for three years now.   Instead, the only thing that really came out formally from Rio+20 is that it was recognized that Businesses are good at innovation and creating technology.  Maybe something will come out of the side panels and discussions there, but formally Rio+20 was essentially a seal of approval on current business practices that are widely considered to be highly unsustainable.

Planetary Boundaries

A final area that seems like it could have liked the Big Conference with the Small Conference was the idea of Planetary Boundaries, simply put as the idea that there are limits to the amount humans can extract and pollute the earth.  The Big Conference could have liked this because it would be a new international legal norm.  These can be quite powerful.  ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ is a quite contentious idea when it was established at Rio 1992–too little for some, too much for others.  But at Rio+20 the people speaking about ‘Common bu Differentiated Responsibility’ was varied and even passionate.  Once you establish a legal norm, they can become highly important.  The Small conference folk would have seen in this a broad idea, but then the ability to get creative multifaceted action on it from around the world.  It was actively part of a draft up until June 18th negotiations.

But it now appears that there will be no new international legal norm to come out of Rio+20.  Planetary Boundaries was one of the last second cuts and it doesn’t even appear it was done because of large scale differences of opinion as much as simply the time it would have taken to work out some problems.  This is a real loss.  Large scale ministerial conferences could be really good at developing legal principles and small scale action can be significantly helped by these principles.  But, the result is neither.  The pull of both meant that planetary boundaries couldn’t be articulated in a coherent fashion even though it would have helped both factions.


What led up to Rio+20 was a lot of debate, hard work, pressure, and wrangling.  There are lots of ways to organize all these points in order to understand the particular outcome: The North-South Split, the U.S.-Europe split, the rise of Canada as an obstructionist force, the inappropriateness of large ministerial conferences.  For me, the conference was uncertain about its purpose or identity.  Yes, it was a Big ministerial conference, but no it didn’t have the same priorities.  This pull tore at the points and made it so that substantive agreement was more than bringing together people with different preferences (a hard enough aspect as it is), it was bringing together with different ideas of international environmental governance.  Big conferences, with ministers, pomp, and media attention, can’t deliver small broad action by billions of people.

It is thus time to decide, and that may be the most important outcome of Rio+20.  If we need treaties with attention, a new international legal principle, or are finally decided we need to clarify international environmental governance–go big!  If instead, our goal is to make it easier for billions of people to make more sustainable decisions, we don’t need to go Big.  Small forums, connections across sectors, sustained networks, etc. are all probably far more useful in producing that world than large ministerial conferences.  The legacy of Rio+20 may be that it now falls to everyone there and elsewhere to get working on the Small agenda.


One thought on “Rio+20 Countdown Review: The Impacts of the Identity Crisis at Rio+20

  1. Pingback: Climate Coalitions: The clock is ticking on their effectiveness « Lullaby of the Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s