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OPINION: Road to Rio +20

I recently went to Johannesburg in South Africa to participate in an African consultation for Rio +20. I have been very involved in the discussions on Rio +20. These are global processes and they take time. Actually, the international negotiations for the conference are being decided right now, months before the conference itself. It is a hectic time for the UN agencies as they decide what is the best they can get out of Rio +20.

The real opportunity here is what we can do at the global level – what we can ask the global system to do. Rio +20 is an opportunity to take the village to the global level and to get the global community to make decisions that will impact the village. The idea is to get economic development in a way that the environment is not compromised and social justice is achieved for all.

Rio +20 is taking place in the shadow of the global economic crisis and one of the themes is how green technologies can give rise to the green economy. Rio +20 will give us a vision for the future, and will shift the economic debate to the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

The second major theme is the institutional framework for sustainable development. We have come a long way since the Earth Summit was held in 1992. We have a better understanding of environmental governance, but our problems have also grown and we need to redesign our institutions. The challenge of growth means there are more actors and more rules today. I have a number of propositions concerning Rio +20.

The first is that Rio +20 is really the next big pit stop in the journey to define and make sustainable development real. Here is the interesting thing about sustainable development – 25 years ago no developing country wanted to talk about it. Essentially the argument was that this is going to be used against us somehow to stall our growth. Now developing countries talk about it all the time. But now that they own the issue they need to put meaning into it. The challenge is to use the institutional reforms to place more focus on development concerns. If someone is to put development concerns and social justice on the agenda it has to be the developing countries.

My second proposition is that the system did not break but that the problem has evolved and what we need to do is to build global environment governance. What does that mean? When we thought of environmental governance we thought of a forest convention, biodiversity convention, climate convention, UNEP. We have to strengthen these institutions – we don’t need institutional adventurism. We need to strengthen existing institutions rather than create new ones. The key challenge here is that of coherence – getting key institutions to talk to each other about policy.

My third proposition is that the green economy is about filling out the economic pillar of sustainable development. A lot of the focus at Rio +20 is going to be about the green economy, which is primarily going to be talked about in the context of the financial crisis. The greenest investment post the financial crisis has been in China, where the green economy has meant making the automobile sector more efficient. South Korea has come second by investing in the renewable energy sector. The USA’s green package has come third – under this package, they started making old government buildings more energy efficient. India is now exploring wind energy options in the wind corridor on the coast near Pakistan. The point I’m trying to make is that there are these opportunities available – they are not easy but they are there.

My fourth proposition is that real innovation is needed in who is involved in governance discussions and how. Think of governance as having three main actors: government, civil society and business. When we first started talking broadly about governance in the 1980s, government was really the solution. That is why we made ministries of environment and international treaties etc. Civil society was the monitor, who was going to keep government in check, and business was the problem. In the 1990s, civil society became the solution, government became the catalyst that would create space for civil society to do their work and business was still the problem. Today, business is the solution, government is the problem and NGOs are the catalyst for business. My point is that we are still not there – what we need is a partnership model in which government does what government is good at, which is regulation and business does what business is good at, which is making a profit while civil society does what it is good at, which is to keep an eye on the system and come up with innovations. That is the type of model that should ideally come out of Rio +20.

What we really need to come out of Rio +20 is a less cluttered global governance system. We need to push for treaty consolidation. We need fewer global treaties – we need more implementation and less negotiation. We need to think systemic and act incremental. Rio +20 is really about writing the story of sustainable development in a different way.

Adil Najam is a former member of the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is currently serving as Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan. He is an active participant in the global preparatory process for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. He recently returned from consultations for Rio +20 (as the UNCSD is being called) held in Africa

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