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Rio+20: The future we want, the debate we need

Written by Dirk Willem te Velde, Raphaëlle Faure


The co-chairs of the UN Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ Preparatory Committee have released a zero draft outcome document entitled ‘Future We Want’. This 19-page document opens with the vision and renewal of political commitments on sustainable development, followed by a discussion of the major themes of the conference (a green economy and institutional framework), and a framework for action. The outcome document has already sparked comments from The Guardian, IIED and the Green Economy Coalition, so let’s use the time from now until the Summit in June 2012 to debate the key issues.

Vision and renewal of political framework

Initially the document sets out the challenge of sustainable development and assesses what has been achieved to date: ‘We are deeply concerned that around 1.4 billion people still live in extreme poverty and one sixth of the world’s population is undernourished, pandemics and epidemics are omnipresent threats. Unsustainable development has increased the stress on the earth's limited natural resources and on the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Our planet supports seven billion people expected to reach nine billion by 2050.’ 

Yet, in order to galvanise people, firms and governments into action, we need much more debate and acknowledgment of the severity of these new challenges for the poor. A recent consultation for the European Report on Development 2011-2012 – led by ODI, DIE and ECDPM – highlighted the considerable pressures on the world’s natural resources, including land and water. By 2030 the demand for energy and water is expected to grow by 40% and for food by 50%. The resulting environmental pressures often affect the prospects of the poorest most severely, as they are often the first to lose from environmental degradation and, because they lack access, are often the last to benefit from scarcity-induced price increases for land or water.

The Rio+20 draft does not mention tipping points, irreversibilities or planetary boundaries, even though the international community is increasingly concerned with low-probability but high-impact events including environmental challenges. It’s crucial that we debate the urgency of these problems.

The green economy

The green economy concept concretises the debate on sustainable development. According to the draft outcome document we ‘should protect and enhance the natural resource base, increase resource efficiency, promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, and move the world toward low-carbon development’. Good. And Rio+20 could kick-start a debate on the how.

The draft goes on to say that ‘the transformation to a green economy should be an opportunity to all countries and a threat to none’. Ensuring that development is protected in this transformation is ambitious and constitutes a new growth and development agenda. To take one example, the draft suggests that there should be no new trade barriers, echoing our earlier opinion that (more) trade can contribute to the solutions to natural resource stresses. Yet, some are still arguing vehemently that protectionism (or less trade) is a solution to food security. It seems all too easy for countries to impose trade barriers in the name of the green economy or food security, while harming development.

The document also includes a range of ambitious policy suggestions, for instance the suggestion to ‘eliminate subsidies that have considerable negative effects on the environment ...  complemented with measures to protect poor and vulnerable groups’. This is good, but ambitious, as the Nigerian experience on fossil fuel subsidies suggests where subsidy reform is politically sensitive and an early development down-payment to address distributional consequences seems necessary (e.g. for infrastructure or social development) for environmental success. Similarly, the document also supports the phase out of distortionary subsidies on agriculture, and we need to debate how developed countries can show ambition in areas such as reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The institutional framework

At present, global environmental governance is lacking. The Rio+20 draft proposes a Commission on Sustainable Development, or the transformation of this Commission into a Sustainable Development Council, but without setting out any details. It also suggests strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This reform process will be difficult, but in the long run it will be important to create a World Trade Organisation-style body that can monitor actions and progress on a new set of sustainable development goals and commitments. A new umbrella organisation will also need to coordinate the myriad of multilateral environmental agreements.

In addition, the Mexican presidency has put promotion of sustainable development at the top of the G20 development agenda this year. Linking the G20 and Rio+20 process could be a complementary route to discuss the economic dimension of sustainable development.

A framework for action

The document includes a framework for action on some 20 sectors including food security, water, energy, cities, green jobs, oceans, natural disasters, climate change, forestry, trade, finance and education, and calls for a voluntary register. These areas require further discussion in order to complete a register of country commitments. In so doing, countries must recognise that the above sectors cannot be seen in isolation, and that thinking around the resource nexus is growing (see, for example, the five consultations for the ERD 2011-2012, Shell’s discussion during last year’s World Water Week, the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Risks Report, and submissions from the European Union and business and industry for the Rio+20 compilation document).

So what now?

It is unusual for negotiation drafts to become publicly available so far in advance. We should use the time well to discuss and achieve the changed mindset required for appropriate actions for sustainable development. This may be a stellar contribution that the Rio+20 process can bring to the table.

Companies are increasingly suggesting mainstreamed sustainability – whilst in the past they were concerned mostly with labour and capital productivity, in the future it is highly likely that resource productivity and the quality of ecosystems will be amongst the most binding constraints to their operations (see Levi, for example). Due to price distortion this transition may not come as fast as many would hope, however. So we need more debate amongst companies and governments on the urgency of actions and on how development can be safeguarded in the transition.

This sounds like a lot to make happen in six months. The clock is already ticking.