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OPINION: Reflections on Rio – a response from CDKN

By Ari Huhtala, Director of Policy and Programmes, and Pippa Heylings, Latin America and Caribbean Regional Director

After an exhausting week in congested, highly dispersed and rainy Rio de Janeiro, we have returned to our offices in Quito and London to reflect on the outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which ended with a high-level segment on 20-22 June. You can also read about CDKN activities during the Summit, and the ‘dialogue days’ which preceded it, in blogs and video clips on the CDKN website.

The draft text for the outcome document had been subject to long and often tedious negotiations in New York from January onwards. This negotiation culminated in the Preparatory Committee meeting in Rio. Too many paragraphs were bracketed until the last minute – meaning that they had not been agreed by government representatives for inclusion in the final text but remained subject to further debate.

Once the baton was passed from the UN to the Conference Chair, Brazil, a compromise text was tabled and debated until early hours, and then unanimously adopted before the heads of state and government started flocking in. The document, titled The Future We Want, has 283 paragraphs and addresses a very wide variety of issues, but it left many with a hollow feeling of having achieved very little.

A group of prominent NGO leaders released a statement “The Rio+20 we don’t want”, which expresses deep disappointment in the results:

“The future that we want has commitment and action, not just promises…. The Future We Want is mediocre and falls short of the spirit and advances made over the years since Rio-92…. Rio+20 will go into history as the UN conference that offered global society an outcome marked by serious omissions.”

This statement echoes the sentiments of many observers, as well as some negotiators.

Let’s not dwell on the low level of ambition that many people associate with the text adopted by the heads of state and government in Rio. We have been told that it is the best that was possible in the current international situation and context. It may not have endorsed any concrete Sustainable Development Goals (or even agreed on themes), or earth-shattering commitments to change the way we use our resources. But it did agree to start a few processes that have the potential of leading to significant (hopefully fundamental) changes in the way we conceive development in the long run. This requires leadership and ambition from now on.

Climate change in the official text

How was climate addressed in the Rio outcome document? Paragraph 25 refers to climate change as a “cross-cutting and persistent crisis” and it “underscores that combatting climate change requires urgent and ambitious action, in accordance with the principles and provisions of the UNFCCC”.  In addition, paragraphs 190 to 192 make more detailed references to the UNFCCC process and welcomes the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, the operationalisation and full capitalisation of which is a key contribution to the Means of Implementation of the Rio outcome.

CDKN is well placed to respond and support many of the provisions of paragraph 66 on green economy in the context of sustainable and poverty eradication: “linking financing, technology, capacity building and national needs”, as well as: “coordinate and provide information upon request on: toolboxes and/or best practices in applying policies on green economy; models or good examples of policies of green economy; and existing and emerging platforms that contribute in this regard.”

New collaborations to value ecosystems and act collectively

In spite of the lack of ambition in the official text itself, there were some notable areas of progress among the multiple stakeholder groups meeting outside of the official meeting. One issue made more progress than many anticipated. Although the Rio outcome text makes only a quick reference to the need to start measuring wealth beyond GDP, the energy around this topic was visible at the conference. Tarja Halonen, the former President of Finland (and Co-Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability) called for an end “to the tyranny of GDP”, and her call found resonance in statements by a number of heads of state and government.

The Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) Partnership’s 50/50 initiative expected 50 government and 50 private sector signatories and actually scored 58 governments and almost 80 companies. The Natural Capital Declaration signed by a broad range of companies and NGOs also pulled together a coalition who demonstrate their commitment to the eventual integration of natural capital considerations into reporting, accounting and decision-making, with standardisation of they way companies measure and disclose natural capital use. This will provide a convincing evidence base for the integration of climate change into development planning.

Sustainable Development Goals

Another opening in the Rio outcome document is the agreement to start a process to develop Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that complement the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and address issues that were not sufficiently embraced in the MDGs. It is now up to the negotiators and participating governments to make the SDGs a milestone in the way we perceive success and development, in the spirit of equity and social inclusion, and within planetary boundaries. CDKN and its Alliance partners can provide valuable inputs to this process in terms of research results, indicators and metrics.

Initiatives to link local and global action

‘Commitment’ and ‘action’ were also the passwords to entry into a fast-growing and enthusiastic community launched at Rio: the Global Union for Sustainability. This Union is founded on the recognition that civil society and business should not only demand action but must also act collectively.  A Brazilian initiative created by the Ethos Institute for Business and Social Responsibility and its President Oded Grajew (the founder of the World Social Forum), the initiative ‘went global’ in Rio with the celebration of commitments by leaders and people from all over the world, many of whom signed The Future We Don’t Want declaration.

At the cities level, it is interesting for CDKN to see the level of activity and interest around cities’ role in pioneering climate compatible development. At the ICLEI meeting in Rio, the City of Quito was confirmed as the co-chair of the South America chapter of ICLEI. This development has resonance for CDKN, as we are working closely with Quito municipal leaders on climate vulnerability assessment and climate resilience planning. This important move will help scale city-level climate compatible development programmes in Latin America beyond Brazil and Mexico, who have traditionally been strong in this area.

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