Recently returned from Rio + 20, I wanted to share my overall take on what was important about this mega-event. In my view, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a historic, game-changing event whose importance will not be understood for many years to come. This is because the signficance of what happened in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 was diffuse, uncoordinated, distributed across multiple networks and hard to capture in any kind of zero-sum argument.
Two things stood out: Rio + 20 affirmed and strengthened the importance of informal networks and non-state actors for achieving momentum on sustainable development goals. The second was the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy – a team of 200 negotiators sewed up the final document before the conference opened – not just impressive, this achievement signalled something important about Brazil’s place in the world today.
Side events were the main event
Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Rio + 20 was mostly negative, and focused on the so-called “weakness” of the final document. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what these conferences have become in recent years: big networking sessions where people involved in sustainable development pitch ideas and projects, and make commitments for the future.
That is to say, the main action was not in the plenary sessions with the heads of state, but rather in the plethora of side events.
The end result was hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments. UN Secretary General for Rio + 20 Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies made commitments totaling $513 billion towards sustainable development.
Rio + 20 demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, the capacity of corporations and grass-roots organizations to deliver concrete actions on sustainable development without any help from governments.
Dan Farber at Legal Planet “The Environmental Law and Policy Blog” noted, “These developments fit well with the theory of network governance. The idea is that international cooperation does not simply involve formal treaties, but instead involves networks of officials at different levels of government, NGOs, and stakeholders.”
Informal networks are where the action is
“It does seem to be true that we are seeing the emergence of less-centralized forms of coordination with some resemblance to the decentralized global communication web. Especially since the formal process of international negotiation seems stalled right now, networks like these may be our best hope of progress on global issues,” he added.
Indeed, this echoes the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who wrote in an op-ed shortly before her death on June 12, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous – but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life to thrive.”
This message was echoed in a number of places in the week after Rio + 20.
In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, Jim Leape of WWF wrote:
“If you looked around in Rio last week, you saw where the action really is — local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.
“Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share. “
Commitments were plentiful and generous
One count showed a total of 600 commitments made at side events at Rio + 20.
* Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies like Wal-Mart agreed to include “natural capital” (and its depreciation) in their measures of wealth.
* Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s initiative to push companies into reporting their environmental footprints.
* Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
* The World Wildlife Fund said it had obtained pledges from twenty-six countries for an agreement to protect transnational water bodies.
* Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP
* A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.
* The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Environment Ministry announced an online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.
* The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.
Green Economy Goes Mainstream
The mainstreaming of green economics may well turn out to be the big legacy of Rio + 20. UNEP was effective at putting Green Economy on the agenda, despite G77/China’s successful efforts on “green economy means different things to different countries” approach to the final text. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the final document produced at Rio + 20 is “a reflection of the global situation at a moment in which there is a global crisis and we have to act collectively. [But] the document itself is very rich in terms of actions, initiatives and programs.”
The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially game changing initiative around ecosystem valuation.
“A new generation of business and political leaders has started to connect company success with social and environmental issues that were previously the concern only of NGOs,” wrote John Vidal in the Guardian.
Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360 that: “… behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.” Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. Once natural capital appears on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways, and environmental protection goes from being a cost to an investment.
On the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy, Nicolas Bourcier of Le Monde provides a good summary.
“Rio + 20 marked the end of a cycle. And the arrival of what one can call “a diplomacy of prosperity”, cherished by the strongmen of Brasilia. A world where south-south relations often have a more decisive dimension than north-south relations.”
He goes further to say that Rio + 20 didn’t just affirm Brazil’s position as a leader of the south; but also that the US was tacitly supportive of their position, judging from the self-effacing and moderate tone the US delegation struck at the conference.
My feeling from the outset, before the conference even began, was that this show belonged to the BRICs and that Obama/Cameron/Merkel’s no-show was at most a minor distraction. In the weeks before Rio + 20, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ambassador Patriota – who is taking Chinese lessons – ran an op-ed in the China Daily to say that green economy means different things to different countries. The message was clear – Brazil had aligned with China on this key issue of the final document, source of much disappointment to those who had pinned their hopes on “The Future We Want”.
Anecdotally, Rio de Janeiro during the conference was staggering beautiful and contrary to dire predictions that we would be stuck in traffic gridlock for 3 days, the buses ran regularly and on time, security was abundant but not stifling, every Brazilian I came in contact with went out of their way, and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were welcome and that things ran smoothly. They were, quite simply, outstanding hosts.
I’ve seen the future, and it belongs to Brazil.