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Rio +20: Keeping our eyes on the prize

Rio +20 (or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) is feted as a critical opportunity to bring together two divergent paths: international negotiations on the environment and international commitments to sustainable development. But this is not a new agenda. After all, the official title of the original 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’  was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. So why have these twin agendas so often ended up in different spaces, and why have efforts to mitigate environmental change and reduce global poverty remained so stubbornly separate? This question is explored by Claire Melamed and Tom Mitchell in their ODI Background Note Separated at birth, reunited at Rio?, which examines where and why the two agendas have diverged and scopes out ‘new’ areas for convergence, such as green growth, at Rio and beyond.  

The political buzz over the past few months has focused on the idea introduced by the Colombian and Guatemalan governments of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They argue that the success of the UN-led Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in focusing collective minds and efforts on funding and pushing forward on poverty reduction can be replicated in the politics of the global environment. It’s an interesting idea and has prompted much debate; but moments of supranational cooperation are rare and the noises coming from those close to the process (along with the existing draft outcomes) suggest that the grounds for optimism are weak.   

Other important discussions in Rio, beyond the global political narrative, will also flag up the links between these two strands. For example, the Conference cannot ignore the fact that by 2030 demand for energy and water is expected to grow by 40% and for food by 50%. The 2012 European Report on Development prepared by ODI, GDI and  ECDPM highlights the  nexus of water, energy and land resources (the WEL nexus) and the need for a radical transformation of approaches to this nexus to support inclusive and sustainable growth in the poorest developing countries. The ERD stresses the need for transformative action that:

  • influences demand patterns to reflect scarcity values
  • improves the quality and quantity of supply (through partnerships on renewable energy for instance)
  • boosts efficiency through, among other things, technology transfer, and
  • increases resilience against shocks through inclusive land policies and social protection.  

Rio also coincides with a rare agreement between business and NGO communities on the practical steps that can be taken to lock in responsibility for the management of our planet’s resources through the introduction of sustainability reporting as a legal requirement. The move has been spearheaded by Aviva but has support from other major businesses.  

ODI’s partners in the Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) will hold two events in Rio that bridge the gap between environment and development – one that focuses on climate security in the Amazon and beyond, and a joint event with IIED that looks at climate considerations in urban planning.    

While expectations are likely to run well ahead of what the politics can and will deliver in Rio, we should not lose sight of the size of the prize. If Rio can deliver an agreement that sustainability matters in the negotiations on the environment and the reinvigoration or replacement of the MDGs in 2015, it could be a game-changing gathering after all.