The Rio text: political success, environmental failure

On June 20, as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development opened in Rio, the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon hailed the text of a draft declaration – passed only the night before – as a “historic” agreement.

But Daniel Mittler, political director of Greenpeace International, summed up the mood among NGOs by calling the text historic for quite different reasons: “Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy.

“We were promised the future we want but we will now only be presented with a polluter’s charter that will cook the planet, empty the oceans and wreck the rain forests.“

Government representatives respond that against severe negotiating challenges, even agreeing the draft text was no mean achievement. One member of the Chinese delegation said: “There are some important outcomes, including creating the space for policy to move forward, defining the green economy and identifying the main tools for sustainable development.”

Perhaps he’s right politically. After all, “common but differentiated responsibilities” is included: developing nations had feared this crucial principle – which recognises the need for the rich world to take a greater share of the burden – would be dropped.

Two decades ago, the Cold War had just ended. The west smugly started planning a new future for the world and its environment. It was hubristic. The developed nations never expected their economies might be hollowed out; what the effects might be of economic crises; the rise of the emerging market nations; finance driving out the real economy on a global scale; and of the domination of a single economic doctrine.

Today, Rio+20 explains itself to the world thus: despite all the major challenges to multilateralism today, we are still able to create a basic consensus on principles that respect the spirit of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. Little can be done now in areas where interests conflict. But, amid all the disagreements, there is a sincere willingness to keep talking.

Chinese diplomat Sha Zukang, secretary general of Rio+20, described the text as starting a point for political negotiations. He said that, among other things, it establishes that the green economy is an important tool for sustainable development; starts high-level forums to promote conference outcomes; encourages private-sector participation in sustainable development processes; starts a new way of measuring prosperity and wellbeing that goes beyond GDP; and puts unprecedented emphasis on the role of civil society.

The main outcome will be a set of high-level political negotiating mechanisms. The real issues will be handed on to be dealt with by those mechanisms. Calls for a US$30 billion sustainable development fund by 2017 have come to nothing. Regarding the notion of “Sustainable Development Goals”, the current text claims to “start a process”. By September 2013, there will be a high-level forum to start the actual discussions. The text takes this approach – “let’s discuss the details later” – in almost every case.

Poverty is everywhere, biodiversity is declining, droughts are no longer headline news. Diplomats continue to blame each other and demand that somebody else acts. For politicians, time seems like the best medicine. But the world is running out of time. 

Xu Nan is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.