“Not humanity’s last chance”

Despair is in the air ahead of next week’s Earth Summit as consensus proves elusive. But even the best of outcomes would only be the start – the real work comes later, argue Yang Fangyi and Nala Songtai.

When the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972, environmental protection was an exotic idea to most nations and people. But the declaration it produced clearly set out humanity’s duty to safeguard the natural world and the need for international cooperation to do so. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established, and national governments followed suit with their own environmental authorities. This was the start of a new age of global green negotiation.

Twenty years later, in very different international circumstances, world leaders gathered in Brazil, where they put their names to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and sustainable-development blueprint Agenda 21, establishing a number of international principles such as common but differentiated responsibilities – the idea that rich countries should bear a bigger share of the burden than poor countries in tackling climate change – and the precautionary approach.

This laid the foundation for negotiations on three major conventions, on climate change, desertification and biodiversity. The 1992 Rio conference also prompted countries to examine their own sustainable-development strategies. Two years later, in 1994, Beijing formed the Administrative Centre for China’s Agenda 21 to set and implement a national sustainable-development plan.

Two decades ago, relieving poverty was by far and away the most pressing priority for most developing nations. In many places, that is still the case. But the years since 1992 have reshaped the world stage, and brought in new and competing pressures.

Emerging economies have grown rapidly, while growth in developed nations has slowed. We have seen financial crises in the west and a realigning of southern and northern economies. Meanwhile, global environment and resource pressures have worsened. According to a UNEP report, between 1992 and 2012, the world’s population grew by 26%; greenhouse-gas emissions increased by 36%; biodiversity fell by 12%; and 300 million hectares of forest were lost.

Social-development issues have not gone away. Improvements have been seen in areas such as healthcare, protection of rights and interests and food security. But globalisation and other forces have driven frequent famines in Africa, and controlling infectious diseases such as HIV is an ongoing battle.

Clearly, there are still major challenges for sustainable development, despite the many positive achievements to date. At the international level, further negotiations on the three international conventions signed in 1992 have been slow, particularly in the case of climate change. Finance and technology transfers are problematic, responsibilities are divided unevenly, international law is not adequately binding and global governance mechanisms are decentralised. Structural failings continue to hold back international progress.

And so, next week – from June 20 to 22  – the world will again gather in Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20. The leaders of more than 100 nations will sketch out a blueprint for future sustainable development, focusing on how to build a green economy, and the right international framework for sustainable development.

But behind the idealism lies fierce disagreement between developed and developing nation groups. For different nations, “the future we want” can mean very different things.

The “green economy”, one of the themes of the conference, sounds wonderful for instance. Who could object to a system that aims to promote both development and environmental protection? But there is still no international consensus on what a green economy looks like. Developing nations are particularly dubious.

After all, for many countries, poverty is still the number one problem. Will the green economy replace sustainable development and reduce the balance between society, economy and environment? Will it emphasise the environment but actually result in new trade barriers? Will developed nations use “green” as an excuse to add new strings to international aid, which already comes with many conditions attached?

With little confidence in the green economy and less in the market solutions worshiped by the developed nations, developing nations are taking a conservative approach. Some Latin American NGOs have even launched campaigns against the green economy.

Meanwhile, developed nations such as European Union countries hope the Rio talks will focus on environmental governance and produce green economic development roadmaps and milestones – but they are unwilling to include preconditions for these, such as social development, in the declaration text. This has led to deadlock, and progress in negotiations is slow. Even though UNEP has put forward a number of successful examples of the green economy, discussions on this theme of the conference are particularly difficult.

Then there’s the question of whether to create new international bodies, or simply strengthen existing ones. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), a forum that focuses on environmental, economic and social matters arising in the sustainable development field, was founded in 1992. But as a branch of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) the CSD does not have the power to command or coordinate other UN bodies.

So the second point of focus for the meeting will be strengthening the framework for international governance of sustainable development. Four choices have been put forward: a high level forum or commission on sustainable development, strengthening the CSD, rewriting the Ecosoc charter to give it a stronger role, or bolstering the functions of UNEP.

After talks in early May, opinions have tended towards the first option – a new sustainable development commission, or high-level political forum. The former option is preferred by EU and Scandinavian nations, while the latter is supported by many developing countries. Whatever the details, it is very likely that Rio will see the formation of a new high-level sustainable development body.

There is also fierce debate about how to strengthen UNEP’s role. Most developing nations support a bolstering of UNEP’s functions, with more nations brought onto its governing council, more funding, more powers and more capacity, and a stronger role in coordinating environmental affairs within the UN system. The European and African nations would prefer to promote UNEP to a World Environmental Organization modelled on the World Health Organization.

As world leaders gather in Rio once again, a new chance is presented. This is a space for those leaders and other participants to discuss crucial questions at the heart of sustainable development, to renew political commitments and make plans for water and food security, oceans, forests, sustainable consumption and other key issues affecting our future. It is an opportunity to talk through sustainable development targets and methods for monitoring progress, to boost cooperation on funding and technology and further encourage civil society and business to participate in sustainable development.

The Rio conference will produce a non-binding declaration, which will renew political commitments and set out principles for the future. Whether or not the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, and “polluter pays”, are reaffirmed will shape the rules by which international environmental issues are resolved in future, and even influence other development fields. So, the Rio conference is certainly important, and will influence the next 20 years of sustainable development.

But implementation of any top-down declarations and political aspirations produced at Rio requires the participation of all social groups. Rio can act as a guide for the future – but it is not the last chance to save humanity. Only action on society, environment and economy from business, civil society and government can ensure sustainable development. Rio may describe the future for us, but it can’t build it. The road to sustainable development remains long and hard, and we cannot expect Rio to provide all the answers.

Yang Fangyi is climate change project officer at Chinese NGO Shanshui Conservation Center. Nala Songtai is coordinator of the Rio Youth Action Group.

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