Rio+20, A Begining

July 2, 2012

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.


Postcard from Rio, Part 3

June 28, 2012

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 3 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Jonn Braman, IEFS Core Advisor

As a public servant and environmentalist, one of the things that impressed me at Rio+20 was the number of Environment Ministers attending who took time to interact with the Major Working Groups.

Rio Centro exhibit, photo by Rick Smith

Brasil’s minister spoke at a couple of events I attended, highlighting her country’s achievements toward sustainability, which are many. I am not sure their shift in policy around the Amazon forests is being seen as positively by others as she described. But certainly their progress away from fossil fuels is impressive and if my nose’s impression of Rio’s air quality is accurate, even with this cold, vehicles burning cleaner fuels will be most welcome here.

Denmark’s Ida Auken spoke briefly about the successes and challenges in her country. Geothermal energy provides them with huge potential for green energy export, but comes with nature’s own air quality challenges for the planet, and in particular for those living on the smaller islands, while the much larger Greenland continues to “green” as the ice pack on it melts at an ever alarming rate. Recent measurements of CO2 levels at 400 ppm on Canada’s equally northern Ellesmere Island seem to indicate the permafrost melting feedback loop may have begun. I would very much liked to have heard more from her, but she cut her talk short to accommodate Ban Ki-Moon arrival at the session.

Of all the environment ministers I heard (and I didn’t get to all sessions) it was the Singapore Minister for Environment and Water Resources that resonated most for me. As a city nation responsible for 5 million citizens on a 30 km long island they, like many island nations, are good allegories for our only planet. They do not have the space for waste or contaminants and they have a very real water supply challenge with a fully built environment. Unlike our planet, they do have neighbors to trade with and they are supporting their commerce, in part, with “green economy” such as export of their desalination technology. Tianjin, a Sino-Singapore Eco-city development is another example. While neither Singapore, nor Tianjin are ‘perfect’ EcoCities in the visionary sense, they are huge steps forward in the recognition of the finite capacity of our planet and our species essential role to ‘get it right’. We can only hope all our countries ‘get it’ and soon!

Petroleo e morte bici e vida. “Oil is death, bicycle is life.” Photo by Rick Smith.

Postcard from Rio, Part 2

June 27, 2012

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 2 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Jennie Moore, IEFS Core Advisor

Richard Register at the ICLEI Townhall. Photo by Rick Smith.

At the ICLEI Town Hall meeting held at Rio Centro on June 21st, several sustainable cities approaches were showcased. Jeb Brugmann, ICLEI founder and past Secretary General, highlighted the value of “productive cities” that can produce food, energy and water within the built environment through use of various technologies including passive solar for water heating and space-conditioning, photo-voltaics for electricity generation, urban agriculture, rainwater harvesting, etc. He called upon the mayors and city officials present to puruse creativity and courage in leading their cities to innovative solutions that address the need for more sustainable modes of production and consumption. While he acknowledged that transformation in the economy is also critical, his message that cities are key to sustainability solutions echos that of Richard Register’s message about ecocities.

Register’s presentation at this same event emphasized the important role of cities in addressing climate change by creating places where people can live free from automobile dependency. Register outlined the five strategic areas that must be addressed to acheive cities that are in balance with nature:
i) population: enable women to access education, jobs and family planning services
ii) agriculture – diet nexus: secure productive agricultural spaces within and surrounding cities and avoid excessive consumption of meat and other foods that are energy-intensive to produce
iii) built environment – design cities, towns and villages to meet the needs of the human body, not hte car body
iv) generosity – this is the opposite side of greed! We must focus on how we can help each-other to produce safe, happy and fulfilling lives while living within the means of nature
v) education – that helps inform people about the above four issues.

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Rick Smith

Konrad Otto Zimmerman, the current ICLEI Secretary General, sumarized the ICLEI Town Hall Cities Day event by observing that “if you listen to the political statements, you realize that we are going to need ecocities.” At the ICLEI World Congress 2012 held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil prior to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, ICLEI agreed to launch the Global Ecocity Network comprising five cities that will engage with Ecocity Builders to test and further contribute to the development of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards. Mayor Joao Coser of Vitoria, Brazil, has agreed to chair the ICLEI Global Ecocity Network. Mayor Coser is also the President of the Brazilian National Front of Mayors.

Mayor Coser of Vitoria, Brazil joined Richard in a panel discussion at the June 21st ICLEI Town Hall (Cities Day) to talk about the importance of sustainability in cities. Other panelists included Tong Yen Ho, CEO, Sino-Singaporte Tianjin Ecocity, Investment and Development Company and Marianne Fay, Chief Economist for the Sustainable Development Network of the World Bank. While panelists represent different perspectives and experiences, they all agree that moving towards sustainability in cities is key.

Postcard from Rio, Part 1

June 27, 2012

This month, a team of Ecocity Builders associates went to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to give talks, listen, collaborate with local communities, and promote the International Ecocity Framework and Standards initiative. This is part 1 of a series of impressions from Rio.

by Rick Smith, IEFS Core Advisor

Rick Smith’s view of Rio

What do Ecocity Builders, Jeff Sachs, and Walmart have in common? They each came to Rio+20 to promote the need to measure, set standards and goals for sustainable development.

In 2008 in San Francisco at the Ecocity Summit, attendees urged Ecocity Builders to launch a program to create an Ecocity labeling system for cities. After all, anyone could claim that they were an Ecocity and not have to justify the label. Well meaning developers build green buildings in locations that have a bioregion that cannot support a major city. Until that point, Ecocity Builders focused on design, advocacy and demonstration projects. After almost three years of incubation with a set of core advisors, the International Ecocity Framework and Standards was launched at the 2011 Montreal Ecocity Summit. This new framework proposed 15 Ecocity Conditions that include the Bio-physical, Socio-Cultural and Ecological Imperatives. Ecocity Builders has partnered with the British Columbia Institute for Technology (BCIT), the William and Helen Mazer Foundation, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLIE) and China to move the IEFS forward. The next step will be joining Early Partner Cities to crowdsource and Beta test the standards.

Kirstin Miller at Rio Dialogues

The excitement of the IEFS launch helped bring Ecocity Builders into the Major Groups process for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, otherwise known as Rio+20. For 10 months, Executive Director Kirstin Miller flew back and forth to New York to help negotiate the zero draft of the cities portion of the outcome document. While this conference was not set up to have a treaty as an outcome, the consensus document for the conference was anticipated to be a firm global policy framework to encourage voluntary commitments among member states and civil society. As it turned out, the section on cities was rather uncontroversial in the ideological and vested quagmire of population planning, technology transfer, technology transfer, armed conflict, and carbon emissions. The Vatican will not allow a statement that remotely resembles a call for contraception. Wealthy countries do not want a statement that remotely resembles an obligation to increase development assistance or weaken intellectual property rights. Few nations wanted to give up war or burning.

Demonstration at the People’s Summit. Photo by Rick Smith

Although the cities section placed an emphasis on cities as a solution to sustainability, the document did not contain any language to encourage an IEFS. However, the Government of Brazil provided one bright opportunity unprecedented in United Nations conferences. They created a social media site for conference participation and invited the world to join. Global citizens were asked to crowdsource ideas and vote on the best ones. Ecocity Builders convened a meeting with other city NGOs and came up with a proposal to promote global standards of sustainability for cities. Two weeks before the conference, this proposal was selected by an expert panel to be in the top ten that went to the world for a vote. When we arrived in Rio, the Government of Brazil schedules a panel discussion for these recommendations on Monday, June 18th. The world would pick one of the top ten by an internet vote, the attendees of the conference would pick one and the expert panel on cites would come up with a third recommendations. For about a week, we had no idea if our proposal would go forward or exactly how this would work. We even had to apply for special tickets to the Dialogue Days events that were to occur between the Preparatory Conference and the Main Summit.

Exhibit at Rio Centro. Photo by Rick Smith

When the winner was announced on Saturday, June 16th, we were devastated. Our proposal came in 6th and the winner was to use waste as a source of energy. While biomass has a role on a small scale, it is not always the most efficient use of resources because some biomass has embedded energy that can be recycled for other purposes. However, when we saw that the panel had our old friends Janice Perlman, Jaimie Lehner and David Cadman we saw some hope that they would be able to present our idea to the world. We arrived at Dialogue Days with a prepared question for the panelists. The panelists had a similar reaction to the world vote on solid waste for energy. Indeed, informal waste pickers staged a bit of a protest in the audience when it was time for questions and answers. Millions of people–mostly women in the world make a living in recycling industries. If we simply burned our trash, it would but these families out of business. Mayor Lehner made a good pitch for standards as did Mr. Oded Grajew, President Emeritus of the Ethos Institute. However, when it came time for the Sustainability Director of one of those “self-proclaimed” ecocities to speak, she said, “We do not need sustainability standards for cities because every city is different. If you want to see a sustainable city, come to ours.” An architect on the panel chimed in to say that you know a sustainable city when you see it.

Our proposal was doomed. With 76% of the vote, the audience voted for “Plan in advance for sustainability and quality of life in cities.” While it was not our proposal, it was not anything to disagree with. Our proposal sunk with only 15% of the vote. However, when the panel deliberated, Janice Perlman said, “You know, we are all of one mind here at the table, let’s integrate some of the comments.” The moderator proposed this text and it was adopted by the panel:

Each head of state should identify a sustainable city to develop a network for knowledge sharing and innovation. Governments should channel resources to develop people-centered sustainable cities with timed and measurable goals, in such way that empowers local communities, promotes equality and accountability.

This recommendation, in a nutshell is the IEFS and engagement with Early Partner Cites, or something very much like it.

Measuring sustainability was very much a theme in other parts of the conference. Business will further advance the Global Reporting Initiative. The consensus document embraced the concept of the Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Kirstin Miller observed the tail end of the SDG negotiations. She observed that the diplomats scratched their heads and didn’t know what to say and called out for the experts to guide them on developing SDGs. We will do just that and we are not alone. ISO will also be engaging with sustainability measures for cites. And UN Advisor Jeff Sachs remarked at a panel for youth, “The Sustainable Development Goals will work because they are not a treaty. The three treaties from Rio 92 were excellent and never implemented but created a cottage industry for lawyers. The MDGs work because no country wants to be seen as being worse off than others.” Ecocity Builders will be moving forward with the IEFS to encourage each city to race to stay within the earth’s carrying capacity.

Informal – Informal at the UN continued

March 29, 2012

As such, we were invited to join the discussion on how to solve these complex problems, not only with a keen eye toward the role cities will play in the final outcome document, but also to network and exchange ideas with other stakeholders on how to ultimately translate all the talk into specific action on the ground.

We were pretty excited to see the paragraph ascribed to cities in the zero draft of the document, which is the agreed upon starting point of the negotiations:

We commit to promote an integrated and holistic approach to planning and building sustainable cities through support to local authorities, efficient transportation and communication networks, greener buildings and an efficient human settlements and service delivery system, improved air and water quality, reduced waste, improved disaster preparedness and response and increased climate resilience.

Of course, by the time the UNCSD delegates had gone through their first reading of Section V (Framework for Action and Follow-up), a whole new picture appeared. Here just a small sample from the third day of informal consultations, as excerpted from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

On cities, CANADA supported the US proposal on sustainable transportation. NEW ZEALAND recommended maintaining resilient ecosystem services. The REPUBLIC OF KOREA introduced its proposal on including greener buildings in city planning. The EU reserved on Japan’s proposal to establish a platform to promote sustainable cities. Proposals for a new title included “Human Settlement, Sustainable Cities, Rural Development and Housing” (G-77/CHINA) and “Cities and metropolitan regions and opposed to extend it to rural development” (EU). The US suggested replacing “low carbon cities” with “sustainable cities” or “low emission cities.” The G-77/CHINA identified slum prevention and upgrading as key elements.

Delegates consulting on the text, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin

It’s a little bit like a global sausage-making town hall, and actually quite amazing how courteous, efficient and fast-moving this process is, considering that it literally involves the entire world.

While the process is quite fascinating and I enjoyed my time sitting in the plenary, the real action for us happened in our major group meetings, side events, and casual meetings in the UN cafeteria, aka the Viennese Cafe. It’s in those meetings where NGOs and civic groups can get a chance to talk to some of the delegates and give their input on what should be included in the draft.

John Matuszak, US, meets with NGOs, photo Earth Negotiation Bulletin


There’s obviously no guarantee that any of it will be included, or if it does, it may very well get deleted again at a later point in the negotiations, but just this morning at our daily major groups briefing, Nikhil Seth, Director for Sustainable Development at the UN, reiterated that civil participation is strongly encouraged and asked us to not get frustrated by the sometimes very arduous process. He likened it to a wave that kind of sucks you in and spits you back out, but ultimately will move us all forward.

There’s definitely a palpable excitement about this new commitment by the UN to include stakeholders from all walks of life and society. While most of the input may not make it into the final document, there’s no doubt that people at the highest levels are willing to listen to a broad range of ideas and let their thinking be inspired by the experiences and lessons from the ground.

For example, for us it was pretty cool to be invited, along with a group of other interested NGOs, to Swedish ambassador Staffan Tillander’s office, to discuss a possible ‘friends of the city’ network that could pool our knowledge and broaden our scope to make the voice of sustainable cities stronger.

Naomi, who is fluent in Swedish, had a chance for a photo-op with the ambassador.

This is really just the beginning of a non-stop process that will go on throughout the coming weeks, into June, and really, beyond the conference. Whatever language ends up in the final document, the real challenge will be to translate the words, intentions and treaties into action.

Sven Eberlein, Ecocity Media

Sven Eberlein is a writer, musician and activist living in San Francisco with roots in Germany. As an associate of Ecocity Builders, Sven has been intimately involved in the advancement of sustainable cities and urban design. His essays have been featured in magazines ranging from the SF Bay Guardian to Global Rhythm Magazine. His new book, Dancing on the Brink of the World, weaves themes of ecology, social justice and spirituality onto a canvas of art, music and creative storytelling. He is a founding member of the band Chemystry Set and publishes the creative portal Tuber Creations. You can read Sven’s creative musings at his blog, A World of Words.