Rio+20: Half full or half empty?

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In today’s post, Simon Upton, head of the OECD Environment Directorate, founder and Chairman of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, and former New Zealand environment minister, gives his personal view of the Rio+20 summit

As with most large UN conferences, there is a “glass half empty and a glass half full” perspective on how the outcome of Rio+20 may be viewed, including the negotiated text, The Future We Want. As someone who left the Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg saying that the world didn’t need another mega-conference, I confess to having some instinctive sympathy with the former camp. 

That’s not to say that tricky issues were ignored. Every conceivable element of the sustainable development agenda was offered space. The environmental side was no exception. Water got six paragraphs, energy five, cities four, mountains three, transport two and so on. Oceans somehow seized 19 paragraphs including the only new commitment: “to take action by 2025 (!) … to achieve significant reductions in marine debris”. Not surprisingly, perhaps, issues that are the subject of negotiations in other fora received cursory attention.  Climate change was awarded three paragraphs which managed to express “profound alarm” and “grave concern” but not much else.

Fossil fuel subsidies, the hottest single issue in the Rio twitter-sphere, were nowhere to be found in relation to climate change or energy but were tucked away in a couple of paragraphs on sustainable production and consumption, including this example of the highly cautious, negotiation-speak of the document as a whole (italics added): “Countries reaffirm the commitments they have made to phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development. We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies…”

Note the artful choice of verbs. One of our analysts, Andrew Prag did a quick analysis of the frequency with which key verbs were used in The Future We Want. Here is what he found:

In short, the closer the world got to action the shyer it got about agreeing to do anything and Andrew’s analysis of the ‘we will’ category reveals a fondness for process and political declarations rather than concrete implementation.

But what of the glass half full camp? Here the emerging story is that there are plenty of ‘hooks’ in the text on which to construct future engagements. The most significant of these is probably the agreement to develop ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. This was Colombia’s great mission and it is to their credit that they battled suspicion and some outright hostility to build a sufficiently broad coalition to get this initiative adopted. Colombia wanted the subject matter of the goals defined at Rio. This was a step too far, so a smaller, regionally balanced working group will be tasked with reporting the putative subject matter of these goals to the UN General Assembly in 2013.

The question has to be asked whether we needed the conference to secure the agenda. Because the best bits of it are happening anyway. Action by leading businesses far outstrips intergovernmental action. Those of us who attended the ‘Business Day’ events were struck by just how far some businesses have come in the twenty years since the 1992 Rio conference.

Changing Pace: Public policy options to scale and accelerate business action towards Vision 2050 is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s incredibly ambitious picture of where the world has to be by 2050: zero waste, near zero net energy buildings, low carbon mobility, doubled food production with much lower inputs, etc. But the big change is not so much in their aspirations as in their target audience. They used to explicitly exclude telling governments what to do. Now, governments are seen to be laggards and they are calling for a much more robust and transparent public policy framework.

They outline a policy accelerator which involves setting goals, communicating and educating, regulating, reforming budgets, investing, monitoring and coordinating. It is, for business, a radical message for governments. It is worth looking at the explanatory section of the document in its entirety, but here is a flavour: “Since the 80s, the notion spread that less government intervention is better for business and economic growth. Yet the resulting deregulated world, with its weak financial and multilateral governance, has a mixed record of progress. It also accumulates economic distress, social tensions and increased environmental risks. It deals badly with the magnitude, depth and urgency of our systemic challenges.”

This language would have been unthinkable at Rio 1992. We are not talking about minor companies here. And they are not without self-interest – large global food companies for instance need access to resources, so it is perhaps not surprising that they oppose subsidies that distort food and energy prices in favour of other businesses. I would be wary of suggesting that governments and businesses should sing in unison – they represent different constituencies and we shouldn’t try to conceal that. But the insistence by some of the biggest companies in the world that they need a coherent regulatory framework that recognizes resource scarcity and the fragility of ecosystem services is surely a milestone.

The references to inequality and social tensions are also significant. A number of business people observed the People’s Forum down the road which drew 35,000 attendees. They were struck by the anger and several made the point that if young people are left unemployed for years on end the anger will spread to political and extra-political action in a way that could be both nasty and unpredictable – and certainly not good for growth and stability.

So the verdict might be that while parts of the conference were seen as  empty, what occurred around it was full of promise. But as the business audience reminded us, whether that promise is fulfilled will depend on the response of governments.

Useful links

OECD’s contribution to Rio+20

Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, to the Rio+20 Session on Global Dialogue on Sustainability and Inclusion

OECD Environment Directorate

OECD work on green growth

Guest author

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