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FEATURE: Rio+20 – Where’s the real energy?

Rio de Janeiro, 21 June 2012: At the Rio+20 Summit, there’s a stark contrast between the hopes for ambitious action among highly-motivated civil society participants and the lacklustre ambition among official government delegates. As someone who has worked as a minister in the Colombian government and also closely with UN agencies and civil society, I see how these broad stakeholder communities have failed to galvanise vision and action around a single, inclusive agenda in the run-up to this Summit. Where is the sense of shared planetary peril, the shared desire to transform the global economy to a more sustainable footing, which launched the UN Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification and Local Agenda 21 twenty years ago?

The original Earth Summit: inspired by a common vision

Twenty years ago I was a young professional working at UNDP in New York. We had been preparing for Rio for at least two years. The Latin America Bureau of UNDP together with IDB had produced a regional version of the Brundlandt Report from the Latin America standpoint. We had created a Commission on development and environment combining leaders from the region, such as former Presidents Oscar Arias from Costa Rica, Miguel de la Madrid from Mexico, Misael Pastrana from Colombia and others, together with the best technical people who all had ideas for our common vision on development and environment for Latin America.

The fruit of our labours, entitled “Our Own Agenda” outlined all the major challenges of the region, and these findings are still valuable today. We also produced together the Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation. Our report, “Amazonia Without Myths”, described the challenges and opportunities of maintaining a standing Amazonia, and described a common vision of the eight country members.

We were involved in the preparation of Agenda 21, the conventions and the concrete commitments in which countries were then willing to get involved. The spirit was of co-creation. The governments and UN agencies were working together toward a major vision. We were all enthusiastically thinking of sustainable development options with concrete actions.

The business sector was on board. Leaders such as Maurice Strong, Stephan Schmidheiny and Sir Edmund de Rothchild were committed to encouraging businesses to think differently. The term ‘eco-efficiency’ marked a major change from business as usual.

Civil society engaged in several processes to provide ideas to the government process and delegations heard the voices of civil society directly. Consultations took place between the Rio Centro (meeting of government leaders) and the civil society forum led by Yolanda Kakabadse and bridges formed among different ideas and viewpoints. It was much more about human interaction.

Today’s Earth Summit: separated by walls

Rio in 1992 was a fantastic place: full of lovely beaches and mostly empty landscapes towards Rio Centro. Today, it is still a lovely city, but growth has turned the landscape into new crowded neighbourhoods like Barra, with all the signs of globalisation and mass consumerism. Along the road you see several high rise buildings, car dealers, fast food outlets, megamarkets and shopping malls. Rio has grown, but definitely not in a green manner.

As you arrive to Rio Centro after more than two hours in a bus, crowded with delegates from all nations that have contributed to the CO2 emissions, you find the new buildings being constructed for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games.  Rio is the place.

Rio Centro, which twenty years ago hosted 110 heads of state who proudly launched all major outcomes, is currently seeing a good number of Presidents arrive to have their picture taken, but have not much to declare, At the same time, the G20 meeting has been taking place in Mexico: this is where ‘important’ decisions are being taken.

Nobody recognises major leaders in sustainable development as there are few here.  In this sense, the Rio+20 Summit is a ‘down-grading’ from the original Summit in 1992; this one has failed to deliver relevant political results or to capture the highest-level political attention.

In the Athletes Park just across the road, you see major pavilions of countries that were not marketing their environmental credentials before: Qatar, Saudi Arabia are now major presenters of their own countries’ growth models. Civil society representatives are gathered in Playa Flamengo and they are showcasing their innovations in climate compatible development and other elements of sustainability. There are many voices willing to be heard: only, the process is so formal that they don’t reach Rio Centro.

At the same time the Global Compact – the business gathering for sustainability – convened for three days in an elegant hotel wiht a high entrance fee for participants. Inclusiveness was not on their agenda. Private sector leaders preached about the environment but were thin on examples from their own companies. (A shame, see the CDKN blog on ‘Great expectations from Rio?’ where my colleagues talk about the possibility for businesses to take a courageous stance here.)

The results

I was present in the final presentations by governments in Rio Centro. The final commitments contemplated in the document The Future We Want, include three main items:

  • The commitment to develop Sustainable Development Goals and the process to make them happen before 2013, a proposal that was led by Colombia with the support of countries such as India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and others.
  •  The creation of a commission represented by 30 representatives from different countries,  to define the route towards defining and implementing the goals.
  • The willingness to have a stronger, collective environmental institution. Some countries such as the African countries and EU would like to see the birth of a fresher, stronger institution than UNEP, while others, such as the USA, would prefer to strengthen the existing UNEP.

Only Norway spoke about climate change in their final remarks. The Arab Emirates States also spoke about climate change but in the context of sustainable energy.

The countries all reaffirm the Rio 1992 principles. The Undersecretary General for the conference, Sha Zukang of China, stated that for the first time “we will measure prosperity and human well being”. But delegates agree that we need the means to implement such an accounting system.

Compared to the agreements of the original Rio Earth Summit, the results of Rio+20 are just pale. We all live on One Planet, which urgently needs a redefinition of “growth”, or maybe “de-growth”, to be able to live sustainably.  We need actions and not just words. It is too expensive to be here at Rio, with all the massive investment undertaken by Brazil and all the delegations to mount this Rio + 20 Summit – for such a weak formal result.

The future

I feel much more enthusiastic about the innovations coming from the civil society, than I do about the words from the governmental process. Social entrepreneurs from around the world spoke about their direct cooperation to generate a healthy mix of markets and public goods.  How to tap the potential of the information society to expand cooperation among entrepreneurs, clients and their value chain? How to reconcile serious ethical concerns with important current scientific development?. Indigenous people were vigorously sharing experiences with non governmental organisations and general participants, all of them passionately carrying out sustainable development activities in their localities.

In this same context, I feel very enthusiastic about the knowledge-sharing and network-building promoted by CDKN at the Rio Summit in forums and panels, and the general ability of humankind to develop and share innovative solutions for the planet’s future climate.  I hope that CDKN’s open sharing of best practices and lessons learned will inspire learning in others, and debate on how we can push the frontiers of sustainable policy and practice at scale. I know that in the side events and ‘unofficial’ forums of Rio 2012, this appetite for learning and sharing abounds. I sincerely hope this energy spins off to catalyse more positive change in society, irrespective of the official negotiating text.

Image of activists calling for climate justice, courtesy Oxfam.



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