Rio+20: On the Same Planet, But Not the Same Page


Why is that we share a common future, but so little common ground?

The result from Rio+20 is so lackluster, leaders and their delegates declined to bequeath it one of the grandiloquent titles normally attached to such things. It is not a Rio+20 Declaration, nor even a "roadmap." It is simply, awkwardly, uninspiringly, a "Rio+20 Outcomes Document."

The easy answer to the question of why leaders could not aim higher, is that the result reflects deep and stark divisions between developing and developed countries. And to some extent that is true.

Take the concept of the green economy, originally intended to be at the heart of Rio+20. Spearheaded by the European Union, the concept was supposed to put the world on track to place sustainability at the heart of economic decision-making.

Many developing countries saw it differently. For a start, they pointed out, money to transition to the green economy doesn't--by and large--grow on trees. And they were wary of anything that might impose rules on how they should develop.

But a simple "them and us" analysis of the failings of Rio+20 overlooks an important difference between 2012 and the time of the original Rio Earth Summit, held 20 years ago. Nor does it even do justice to the nuances of the green economy debate.

As UNEP chief Achim Steiner told a closing news conference, the world has changed, and consequently so too has what he termed "the arithmetic" of international negotiation, making the task of achieving consensus much harder.

Now, we live in a world where environmental leadership on various issues isn't solely the domain of developed countries, with Steiner pointing to Costa Rica's forest protection and reforestation efforts, Mexico's landmark climate law, and China's new status as the world's largest renewable energy investor.

Now we live in a world where concerns about poverty, unemployment, and economic security are also top of mind concerns for citizens in many developed nations. To complicate matters further, some of the world's new economic powerhouses--that can and should step up to the plate--are cautious about playing a leadership role in shaping global sustainable development policy.

It all means leaders, and laggards, are everywhere. North and South.

If you want proof, consider Rio+20's backing for new sustainable development goals--including themes on climate change, water and sanitation, oceans and seas, energy, and sustainable cities--ultimately lauded as a key achievement of the summit, although the conference eviscerated initial efforts to define more precisely at Rio what they should be. An expert working group was ultimately given the task of defining and quantifying the sustainable development goals and determining time frames to reach them.

The proposal originated in late 2011 not from a major developed country, but from Colombia, with the backing of Guatemala. At a Rio+20 news conference, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos recounted with pride a comment from Rio+20 Secretary-General Sha Zukang. Colombia, while perhaps not the most important nation in the world, had given Rio+20 one of its most important ideas, Sha had said.

Given Rio+20's many weaknesses, is there hope? Perhaps. The summit was ultralight on big commitments, but it did encompass some big ideas. One of the most important was the need to value natural wealth. In short, Rio+20 cautiously, tentatively suggested that it is time for the international community, nations, and companies to stop cooking the planetary books and start valuing how they affect natural resources and ecosystems.

But as the world's leaders and legislators pass the baton to the world's bookkeepers, it is worth bearing in mind the thoughts of Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of the giants of the international sustainability stage.

Brundtland chaired the commission that produced the 1987 'our common future' report, which popularized the term 'sustainable development.' She was on a U.N. panel that prepared a report for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon--intended to inject start-up intellectual firepower to the Rio+20 talks--and she is one of three special climate change envoys appointed by Ban.

In a Rio+20 news conference, Brundtland said that environmental concerns risked being overshadowed in the final document by the other two pillars of sustainable development: the economic and the social. Rio+20 had largely failed to acknowledge planetary boundaries and tipping points, she cautioned.

In other words, by all means do the math, but don't forget the science.