Rio+20: Dark clouds, silver lining?

26 June 2012

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, summarizes the events in Rio+20. 

There can be little doubt that the Rio+20 Earth Summit that concluded on Friday left many with a profound sense of disappointment. From environmental and developmental NGOs at one end, to senior government ministers at the other, the view that countries fell far short of what they could and should have agreed has been palpable.  

But is this assessment entirely fair?

With respect to the main political declaration, entitled ‘The Future we Want’, it largely is. While governments can legitimately point to a number of new initiatives, such as agreement to establish a set of universal sustainable development goals or ‘SDGs’ and the creation of a new high-level forum, the text reads and feels like a document that caters to the lowest common denominator. Rather than firm ‘wills’ and ‘shalls’, the text is instead dominated by vaguer ‘reaffirmations’ and ‘acknowledgements’.

To be fair, the declaration is the child of low expectations and a complicated political and economic international context. Given the contentious state of ongoing climate negotiations, the unfolding financial drama in Europe and an election year in the US, few countries entered into these talks with any great willingness to expend political capital. The text is a clear reflection of this reality.

So does this mean that Rio was a failure as a conference? Not necessarily. At the political level, for example, Rio attracted an impressive list of leaders at the head of government or state level. While certain notables figures were absent, the presence of presidents or prime ministers from China, India, South Africa, Korea, France, Mexico and Australia, to name a few, underscored the political interest in the conference. Had the summit attracted only environment ministers or similar, the political message from national leaders would have been clear.

While it is true that these leaders did not seek to improve the text their officials had negotiated, they are likely to have left Rio with a sense that the shift towards green economies is real and that the demand for it among businesses and civil society is even more so.

In terms of changing government policy and direction, this impact shouldn’t be underestimated.

There are other reasons to be optimistic. Although, countries fell short collectively of what could have been achieved, tangible progress was seen on a uni, bi and plurilateral basis. Brazil, for example, announced that it would be investing $235 billion in renewable energy over the next 10 years, including 59 gigawatts of renewable power and over $100 billion of new investment in biofuels. China announced a $31 million aid package to small island states to help will climate related issues, while the EU has committed to establishing a technical assistance facility as part of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, supported by $61 million over the next two years. Meanwhile, some 50 countries and 86 major companies committed to working with the World Bank to develop new accounting systems for valuing natural assets such as clean air and water, forests and other ecosystems.  

Businesses also announced or undertook a range of important initiatives. Four hundred companies from the Consumer Goods Forum, for example, representing over $3 trillion in annual revenues, pledged to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.

More immediately, the aviation industry demonstrated the technical practically of sustainable jet biofuels, by conducting a series of interconnected commercial flights from Montreal to Rio in conjunction with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). And eight major development banks announced that they would provide $175 billion for sustainable transport investment over the next ten years – a figure likely to leverage significant amounts of additional private finance.

Not to be left out, the World Summit of States & Regions, held on the margins of the main conference, showcased the many actions that sub-national governments are taking. Responsible in many cases for key areas such as energy, transport, industrial and land use policies, these governments will and are playing a critical role in determining the pace and direction of sustainable development. Members of The Climate Group’s States and Regions Alliance demonstrated this leadership with commitment to joint targets on energy efficiency and pledging to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. 

While it is true that these various announcements and initiatives are not an adequate substitute for the coordinated package of global targets or programs that Rio could have delivered, they do demonstrate an important point. This is that real and substantive action is happening on climate change and other sustainability issues without the need for international treaties.

Indeed, the 50% drop in solar PV prices in 2011, the $50+ billion in clean energy investment in both the US and China last year, the commercialization of electric vehicles, and the introduction of renewable energy targets in 118 countries, have all occurred in the absence of any global agreement.

This perhaps is the real lesson of Rio. Three years after the Copenhagen climate conference, it is clearer than ever that relying on a top-down approach to solving the world’s environmental problems is simply insufficient for achieving change at the speed and scale required. New and ambitious alliances, made up of leading countries, businesses, sub-national governments, international institutions and NGOs arguably provide the best means for scaling up action in the short to medium term.

Encouragingly, Rio demonstrated the appetite and desire for such collaboration, as evident by the collective call from many countries, and all official observer groups, including business and industry, for the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. Unfortunately, this call was left unanswered in the final declaration, but clearly and crucially the desire for action remains.

So what next? On the formal UN/government side, it looks largely like business-as-usual as countries begin to slowly digest the implications of the conference. The Rio declaration has set in train a number of new processes, such as the work on the SDGs, a ten-year framework on sustainable consumption and production and an initiative to look at economic sustainability indicators that go beyond GDP. Given normal UN politics, these processes are unlikely to move quickly or decisively.

This does not mean that multilateralism is dead, but it does underline that the diplomatic process is more likely to provide a retrospective wrapper for international environmental, sustainability or climate cooperation, rather than actually creating the system itself from the top down.

It is for this reason that voices of progressive business and sub-national governments, in partnership with NGOs, research organizations and international institutions, needs to be heard loud and clear in national government departments and cabinet rooms.

While the Rio conference can be faulted for a variety of reasons, it has at a minimum, brought interest in the green economy and sustainability back to the highest political levels.

It is now up to leaders in business and civil society to leverage this window of opportunity to ensure that the hopes so many had for Rio are finally delivered


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