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Rio+20 = What?
June 2012

Right now, thousands of government, business, and civil society representatives from around the world are meeting in Rio de Janeiro for one of the largest and most important UN summits in two decades. The Rio+20 Conference—successor to the first Rio “Earth Summit” held twenty years ago—will take place from June 20-22. The conference will address two major themes—a “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” and an “institutional framework for sustainable development”—as well as seven critical issues: jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans, and natural disasters.

While the conference will take stock of the progress made since the first Earth Summit in 1992, according to the Brazilian government, success will be determined by new commitments and agreements. Actions such as the strengthening of the current UN Environmental Program and the creation of a business platform for the green economy are just some of the outcomes Brazil hopes to see. Most importantly, there is hope that the conference will leave a legacy akin to that of the first Earth Summit, whose documents and deliberations paved the way for treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol. One such legacy may be the negotiation of Sustainable Development Goals, which will function along the lines of the Millennium Development Goals.

However, leading into the conference, the prevailing opinion is that Rio+20 runs the risk of becoming a missed opportunity. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that breakthroughs on the scale of those achieved in 1992 are unlikely. By the beginning of May, negotiations aimed at finalization of an action plan for the conference had been so “painfully slow” as to require an extra round of talks between May 29 and June 2. Even after that round, only 20 percent of the content of the document had been approved, meaning the rest of the document was negotiated by the Preparatory Committee immediately prior to the conference.

The stalemate on the action plan reflects a wider sense of disagreement and disillusionment on the part of the world’s governments. Though 130 heads of state have accepted their invitations to Rio+20, Obama is not likely to attend. Nor will his British and German counterparts be present. Participants in a global development podcast from The Guardian pointed to two major trends that differ from those seen in 1992: a likelihood that much of the work and progress will be done by NGOs and businesses rather than governments; and a North/South divide that sees developing countries investing more time and effort in the preparations than developed countries. In fact, there is evidence that developed countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia have “backtracked” on some of the commitments and principles negotiated in 1992. The lack of urgency and progress has been so troubling to some that they have said the conference is in need of being “saved.”

Yet some still hesitate to make premature conclusions of failure at Rio. While lack of government involvement (especially from developed countries) is disconcerting, some believe that “a world without clearly defined leaders is not a leaderless world”—that NGOs, businesses, and issue experts are just as likely to generate progress and commitments as political actors are. The Obama administration seems to place its faith in this “bottom up” approach, which would hopefully generate public pressure on governments to act on matters of sustainability policy. Indeed, the role of civil society and businesses in this year’s summit is much greater than in 1992, as is evidenced by many side events and initiatives, such as Rio+Social and the Rio Dialogues. The secretary-general of the upcoming summit has called Rio+20 “everyone’s conference,” meaning that it is everyone’s responsibility to achieve a more sustainable world and that everyone—politician, businessman, and citizen alike—has the potential to generate change.

—Audrey Williams, Stanley Foundation Policy and Outreach Intern

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