The Rio+20 Earth Summit, a global sustainability jamboree attended by over 100 heads of State and over 60,000 political leaders, officials and activists, ended recently in Rio de Janeiro. Armies of analysts are busy interpreting what we did (and did not) achieve at the summit. It was a mixed bag.
There were quite a few positive takeaways from the summit. First, we got an outcome document to which all countries gave their approval. Getting 100% agreement of 193 parties on a 53-page document, where every word is dissected and interpreted by suspicious negotiators, is not a mean achievement. While there was the usual posturing and grandstanding by countries, at the end a spirit of give-and-take prevailed. This is an important result for the credibility of the multilateral negotiation process.
Second, the concept of equity and the original Rio Summit Principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’, which is dear to developing countries in particular, were categorically re-affirmed.
Third, a mandate was given to pursue several new initiatives. Chief among this is the concept of Sustainable Development Goals — a set of action-oriented goals related to the various dimensions of sustainable development that all countries should aspire towards. A mandate was also given to develop indicators beyond GDP to measure holistically the progress on development, a call for sustainability reporting by corporates, and a work programme on sustainable consumption and production patterns — areas where a lot of preparatory expert work has already been done which can now be taken forward.
However, the glass is only half full, at best. The major shortcomings were the absence of consensus on ambitious initiatives and a concrete time-bound roadmap of actions. More than 100 heads of State came and spoke, but left without promising anything new. The lengthy outcome document is full of terms like ‘reaffirm’ (59 times), ‘renew’, ‘acknowledge’, and ‘underscore’, but lacks actionable terms like ‘commit’, ‘pledge’ and ‘promise’. Difficult political decisions on fossil fuel subsidies, clarity on the concept of the ‘green economy’, and technology cooperation were parked for another day.
In addition, we got nowhere near consensus on the key question of ‘financing’ the incremental investments that are required to fund all the good things we want to do for the world. Even as the United Nations claimed that $513 billion was pledged at the conference for initiatives ranging from clean energy, food security, water conservation, to the ‘blue economy’ (protecting oceans), on closer inspection, it is clear that these are nothing more than repackaged and rebranded versions of existing initiatives and commitments.
As tired negotiators return to their respective countries, the focus will now shift back to climate change negotiations, which happen every year. It is interesting to note here the contrast between sustainable development and climate change negotiations. Sustainable development negotiations — with an all-encompassing agenda and no clear metrics — are like a second division league match compared to climate change negotiations, which is the championship final.
The Rio+20 Earth Summit has given a new lease of life to multilateral diplomacy and the UN system. Multilateralism, as it exists today, will stay alive for now, albeit on life-support. But the real question is whether the top-down ‘single-undertaking’ model of negotiations, where 193 parties have to agree on everything through a cumbersome and protracted negotiation, is the right approach for the world today. Or has the time come to look for something different — something more bottom-up that addresses the domestic political realities of individual countries, and makes it easier for them to commit. Taking such an incremental, but practical and implementable approach to negotiations may well be the way forward for the world.
Varad Pande is officer on special duty to the minister for rural development. The views expressed by the author are personal.