Rio+20, A Begining

By Felix Dodds

Chair of the 64th UN NGO Conference and Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum

Author of Only One Earth – The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development written with Michael Strauss and Maurice Strong.

felix dodds
Felix Dodds

The Rio+20 Conference finished last week amid a set of different views on its success or failure. It was definitely a turning point. What was clear from the beginning is that the leadership for Rio+20 was coming from the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China] and not the developed countries. This was the first sustainable development summit called for by a developing country, Brazil. At times it seemed as if the developed countries had to be dragged to the table.

It is clear that the document lacked vision and firm commitments but to those NGOs and Heads of State saying that I would ask, where were you when there was a chance to influence the process a year ago? Brazil showed amazing leadership finishing the negotiations before the Heads of State arrived, a record for a UN Summit.

What is clear is that there were some battles that were lost. The work undertaken by Greenpeace for an agreement to immediately set up a process to deal with a high seas biodiversity agreement to protect our oceans was opposed by the US, Russia, Canada and Venezuela. The processes set up will, in 2014, let the UNGA will to take “a decision on the development of an international instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”. This puts off without a firm commitment to set up negotiations for a new convention on the high seas. This was one of the big disappointments from Rio+20 which did move forward many other issues dealing with the oceans including ocean fertilization, acidification, marine debris, illegal fishing and reaffirming the WSSD target for restoring fish stocks.

On the issue of fossil fuel subsidy, after 20 years of talking about it, Rio+20 could not agree to any plan for eliminating environmental harmful subsidies (such as fossil fuels). If Rio+20 had delivered, then these subsidies could have been shifted to help us finance the transition to a sustainable world.

Other issues that Rio+20 did not succeed in addressing were the refusal to recommit to reaffirm to a women’s reproductive rights, water and sanitation as a basic human right and the lack of an upgrade of UNEP into a specialized agency are some that come to mind.

Positive side

On the positive side we saw a firm commitment to a new body on sustainable development and to universal membership for UNEP. We saw green economy for the first time accepted into a UN document and although not a helpful term, it is the first time that economy has been put at the centre of the debate on sustainable development. We saw in April the World Bank hold their first meeting of finance ministers with the heads of the Bank, IMF and the UN and agreed to trial out natural capital accounts in 50 countries and meet annually at the Bank. The Summit formally agreed to trial out alternatives to GDP.

The game changed of course is the Sustainable Development Goals originally put forward by the governments of Colombia and Guatemala; an expert led process now will conclude in time for the 2013 UN GA and enable the process on SDGs and MDGs to merge into one process beyond that date.

The hope for an agreement on a global framework for corporate reporting (para 47) was watered down to a sharing of best practice which could develop into a global framework in the coming years. Friends of para 47 was immediately launched with the leadership of Brazil, South Africa, Denmark and France. Expect to hear much more from this group.

Agreement for a new 10 Year Programme of Sustainable Consumption and Production which had not been possible only two years ago was agreed to. Strong language and support for existing work on sustainable agriculture was part of the section dealing with Food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture. The Rio+20 text placed for the first time a real commitment for regional government to play a more significant role in the follow up. A level of government left out of the 1992 agreement and only becoming a player in 2002 with the establishment of the Network for Regional Government for Sustainable Development. It is clear that all levels of government need to be involved in taking forward the future we want and developing it with their communities.

On sustainable cities perhaps the lack of real engagement by UN habitat in Rio+20 ensured that this section wasn’t as strong as it should have been. The support for an integrated approach to planning in building sustainable cities will not go down well with the US Tea Party but isn’t enough. The move towards a conversation on Urban Sustainability Goals and indicators was raised in August 2011 but the Habitat family did not move forward on that. For 2013 there will need to be considerable work undertaken if urban issues are to be part of any suit of new sustainable development goals. That discussion needs to start in Naples in September.

Other Initiatives

Future Earth was launched at Rio+20 and is a new 10-year international research initiative that will develop the knowledge for responding effectively to the risks and opportunities of global environmental change and for supporting transformation towards global sustainability in the coming decades. Future Earth will mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policy-makers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20.

The UN Secretary General announced at Rio+20 the ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’ which has five main objectives: to achieve 100 per cent access to adequate food all year round; to end malnutrition in pregnancy and early childhood; to make all food systems sustainable; to increase growth in the productivity and income of smallholders, particularly women; and to achieve a zero rate of food waste. The initiative is supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), World Food Programme (WFP), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank and Bioversity International.

The UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative focused on driving actions and mobilizing commitments towards three objectives, all to be achieved by 2030 – ensuring energy access, doubling energy efficiency, and doubling the share of renewable energy. At Rio+20, intending to achieve these objectives businesses and investors have committed over $50 billion and tens of billions of dollars have been committed by other key stakeholders – governments, multilateral development banks, international and civil society organizations.

A communiqué signed by 45 CEOs of major corporations outlined ways that Governments can do better on water management and can set frameworks that will help businesses to scale up its their role in reducing usage and restoring natural sources.

Nearly 300 institutions of higher learning endorsed a plan to place sustainable development at the heart of college and university curricula. There was also a series of events featuring the eight special initiatives from the Eye on Earth Summit held in Abu Dhabi in December 2011. The Government of Abu Dhabi has committed to establishing a secretariat with UNEP and moving the special initiatives forward. Among them are initiatives of Oceans and Biodiversity. There are also two important cross cutting initiatives – one of access for all (Principle 10) and developing a network of networks to ensure that information technology serves the future we want.


Rio+20 saw a record 700 voluntary commitments which according to the UN amounted to tangible commitments to mobilize more than $500 billion in actions towards sustainable development. To add to that 64 million personal pledges were made. This idea was expressed through the last paragraph in the outcome document (§ 283) but was originally one of the commitments made at the 64th UN DPI NGO Conference in September 2011. UNV, Stakeholder Forum and Zerofootprint set up a campaign for Rio called “volunteer action counts” and in three months dipped into a rich seam of persona action that will be rolled on to the MDG review in 2015.

Government financial commitments made at the conference were also not insignificant they included:

  • Australia committed by doubling their support of the Coral Triangle Initiative, $8 million (AUS) plus an additional $25 million (AUS) in funding for fisheries and climate change adaptation on the Pacific.
  • Brazil $6 million for UNEP and US$10 million towards climate change challenges in Africa, least developed countries, and small island developing states.
  • China $6 million for UNEP
  • European Commission (EC), announced €400 million to support sustainable energy
  • Japan, announced funding for a three-year programme of disaster risk reduction (no figure yet),
  • Norway announced $140 million over 5 years to scale up access to sustainable energy in Ethiopia’s Kenya, and Liberia
  • UK announced 150 million pounds for the International Fund for Agriculture Development’s Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Program
  • US announced a partnership between the US and African nations, with US$20 million in funding, for clean energy projects in Africa
  • Eight multilateral development banks pledged to invest US$175 billion over the next 10 years to support the creation of sustainable transport systems.

If we compare this to ten years ago at WSSD a Summit held in the long shadow of 9/11 it makes an interesting comparison:

WSSD Pledges

* Asian Development Bank: US$5 million to UN Habitat and US$500 million in fast-track credit for the Water for Asian Cities Programme.

* European Union:

  • US$700 million Partnership Initiative on Energy
  • US$80 million committed to the replenishment of the GEF

* United States

  • US$970 million over the following three years in sanitation and water projects
  • US$43 million to be invested in energy in 2003
  • US$2.3 billion through 2003 on health
  • US$90 million in 2003 for sustainable agriculture programmes
  • US$53 million for forests between 2002-2005

The Future – we need to work to get the one we want

After Copenhagen and the failure of The Commission on Sustainable Development [CSD] the issue of sustainable development was dead at the international level. Rio reinvigorated sustainable development and most people should have left leave Rio with enthusiasm and energy for the work towards 2015. And 2015 has the potential to become one of the most significant years for sustainable development that we have known. A new climate regime and sustainable development goals are now on the table.

It is surely a time for boldness, for passion, for vision and for commitment to create a better and more sustainable future.

The work to deliver a substantive agreement in 2015 and to implement Rio+20 starts in our communities, in our work places and in our countries. It starts on Monday….. every Monday.

Dodds’ is the author of Only One Earth – The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development written with Michael Strauss and Maurice Strong.


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