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Rio+20 Conference

The Aftermath

July 3, 2012 | by ANTONIA SOHNS

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre) at Rio+20. © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Antonia Sohns of the Worldwatch Institute discusses initiatives in the wake of the Rio+20 conference: Good governance is key to successful climate negotiations.

Twenty years after the United Nations held an unprecedented environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro to discuss approaches to advance sustainable development and address climate change, political leaders, concerned citizens, and scientists returned to Rio last week for the “Rio+20” Earth Summit to revisit these topics.

Reflecting on decades of talks and flawed agreements that proved ineffective with the passage of time, the participants hoped to create a new strategy for sustainable development and establish a green economy. Initiatives in advance of Rio+20, such as Planet Under Pressure 2012 and the Global Civil Society Treaty, emphasized the importance of economic and social equity in achieving a sustainable future. The Field Hearings Initiative also argued that inequality prevents society from developing collaborative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

While government delegates reached a conference agreement entitled The Future We Want, which developed on the theme of equity, it failed to develop an exigent strategy to address pressing issues such as poverty and population growth. The delegates of Rio+20 faced daunting challenges in achieving a singular, successful agreement in the context of the global financial crisis. Negotiations were encumbered by the precarious state of the global economy, as delegates viewed commitments to climate agreements exclusively from the perspective of their potential to challenge economic recovery and the return to more robust economic growth; and critical political leaders, such as U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, preferred instead to attend the G20 Summit in Mexico. The international community’s attention on the immediate potential for Euro zone dissolution eclipsed concerns about climate change and the progress of Rio+20.

Although Rio+20 was overshadowed by the G20 summit and economic crisis, the 50,000 Summit attendees used the conference as a platform to promote sustainable development initiatives and highlight four central themes critical to sustainable development: equity, governance, growth, and interdependency.

In particular, several notable commitments advancing sustainable development emerged from Rio+20: the eight largest multilateral banks announced they will invest $175 billion in sustainable transport projects over the coming decade; government delegates will create a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2015, which will determine the direction of global development work, and further promote collaboration between nations in achieving their stated targets. Additionally, the deficient international outcome of Rio+20 catalyzed local enterprise, inspiring solutions such as the Cloud of Commitments, which tracks commitments made at Summit in order to increase accountability and transparency.

As the newly formed networks between participants evolve and strengthen, and initiatives continue to transpire, the themes of equity, governance, growth, and interdependency must guide their development. Today, inequality in the distribution of income and wealth is pronounced and increasing in almost all nations outside Scandinavia, and between nations as well. Inequity deepens social fragmentation and undermines the potential to reach collaborative agreements that are fair and equitable to all social classes, nations and generations. The stability of our global system and our social resiliency depends on the institutional capacity to engage and resolve competing interests and concerns.

To prevent economic and social inequality from further impeding progress in sustainable development, and exacerbating the divisions between nations and perspectives, participation by all stakeholders is critical. Such engagement will require politicians to establish close partnerships with unlikely allies, and encourage societal transformations that embolden sustainable initiatives.

Inequity and flawed climate negotiations reveal the importance of governance to ensuring successful climate negotiations. The robust democratic institutions of good governance are critical not only to promote participation, social equality, transparency, and accountability, but also to increase governments’ ability to commit to sustainable development. While politicians are often concerned with immediate political gains and positioning, they must resist seeking transitory advantage in disregard of the world’s future security.

The guiding themes that emerged from conversations around Rio+20 emphasize the importance of developing a new indicator for growth. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is no longer an adequate measure of social well-being, since it prioritizes consumption over sustainability. Instead, an economic indicator should be developed that is linked to green growth, thereby encouraging sustainable growth and prosperity. Furthermore, market-based approaches, such as payment for ecosystem services (PES) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), may be the most effective means of enhancing sustainable development as they quantify the value of ecosystems and biodiversity, thus enabling policymakers to weigh the trade-offs between exploitation, conservation, and sustainable development.

Finally, global interdependency, economically and environmentally, requires political leaders to cooperate on climate agreements, since future security depends on the preparedness of all nations.

As the rate of change in our environment continues to accelerate, communities and governments must act locally and regionally, where international leaders have failed. Collectively, nations have the opportunity to incorporate the guiding themes of equity, governance, growth and interdependency into new governance strategies integrating corporations and web-based platforms, in order to maximize innovation and accountability. With novel approaches and a multi-faceted perspective, we all must translate knowledge into action and formulate strategies that are fair and equitable to nations and generations.

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