What is ‘The Future We Want’? Rio + & –

A version of the following article by Carl Death and Mark Whitehead was published under the headline ‘Environmental future less grim than Rio negotiations suggest’ in the Western Mail on 3 July 2012.

In the past few weeks of excitement over the Euro 2012 football tournament, a succession of rugby internationals, Wimbledon, the build-up to the Olympics, and the Royal Jubilee – as well as front pages dominated by Greek elections, violence in Syria, the G20 summit in Mexico, and elections in Egypt (not to mention the flooding in mid-Wales) – the fact that global leaders were meeting in Brazil to negotiate a global agreement on sustainable development has largely passed without comment. On Friday 22 June the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, concluded by adopting a negotiated text entitled The Future We Want. Coming twenty years after the trail-blazing Rio Earth Summit, Rio+20 (as it has become known) is therefore an appropriate moment to assess the progress that has been made towards achieving environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Given the scale of the challenges we face—climate change, food security, alternating flooding and water scarcity, poverty, pollution, scarce natural resources, species extinction (and the list could go on and on)—it might be assumed that the ten days of negotiations in Rio from 13-22 June were a big deal. Similarly, the presence of representatives from 191 UN member states and observers, including 79 Heads-of-State or Government, and approximately 44,000 other official participants, also suggests that this was a major event in global environmental politics.

The sad truth is that Rio+20 passed below the radar for a good reason: it was clear from quite an early stage that little of significance was going to be negotiated or agreed by the inter-state delegates. For months beforehand negotiators had been locked into interminable and spiralling arguments over commas and phrasing. There had been some hope that the conference might break through the deadlocks in a number of key areas: specific measures and commitments to a ‘green economy’ (emphasising the role of clean and green technologies in economic growth and environmental protection); Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015; and reform of the structure of global environmental governance (particularly the UN Environment Programme). But as time became more pressing, and positions became more entrenched, it was clear that the most that could be hoped was that Rio+20 would not entail backsliding on agreements that have survived since 1992.

It was therefore a masterstroke of Brazilian diplomacy when, on the Tuesday afternoon, delegates agreed on a shortened version of the text drafted by the hosts. By removing the most contentious sections, and slimming the document down to a (mere) 53 pages, the Brazilians had produced an outcome no one could disagree with. In no small part because it did not say anything new or significant. George Monbiot summed up the thoughts of many when describing it as “283 paragraphs of fluff.”

Although the lack of ambition in The Future We Want is a source of consternation to many observers, it also points to an important shift in the nature and purpose of such multilateral summits and texts. One veteran NGO representative observed, “It is critical not to equate Rio+20 with a document … Rio+20 is a gathering of people, a catalyst, which can convert to action.” It was after the text had been agreed, and delegates and diplomats realised they had three days to fill, that the real purpose of the summit became clear.

Meetings such as Rio+20 are moments of political, economic and social theatre. Heads-of-state orate from the podium and shake hands with the press. Sometimes they even make a show of listening to activists, other delegates, and the public. Business representatives—of which there were more than 1,000 in Rio+20—proclaim their commitment to sustainable development, showcase innovation and best practice, and woo diplomats with expensive dinners and flattering attention. The NGO community lobby, network, publicise their own projects, and re-energise their people. There were over 3,000 unofficial events taking place throughout Rio de Janeiro, and President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff described the conference as a “global expression of democracy.” Protestors and activists on the street outside march, sing, get dressed up, and condemn world leaders. A world in miniature, the conference venues becomes a brief and effervescent carnival of brightly coloured performances. In the context of the glacial pace of progress towards substantive agreements at Rio+20, however, some claim that Environmental NGOs are beginning to reassess their diplomatic efforts, and are increasingly adopting a war footing in their quest to secure a more sustainable planet.  

There were many different opportunities for people with projects to publicise to talk about their progress. The UN reported on 712 voluntary commitments during the conference, from a range of organisations including governments, NGOs, and over 500 companies and universities. States were involved in only seven per cent of these commitments. These initiatives – taken together with the disappointing and unremarkable negotiated text – signal where the real energy and progress on sustainable development is coming from.

The Welsh Government’s Environment Minister John Griffiths represented Wales at Rio. Wales has, of course, a strong affinity with the principles debated at Rio. Since its inception, the Assembly has had a constitutional commitment to achieving sustainability and is presently negotiating a new sustainability bill. Before leaving for Rio, Griffiths stated that he hoped to talk about the great progress that Wales has been making in its attempts to build a more sustainable society. This progress can been seen in Wales’ path-breaking Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship curriculum, and in schemes such as Arbed, which has helped those living in social housing improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

When the multiple initiatives underway in towns, villages, cities, regions and many other communities around the world—in the areas of conservation, food and water security, recycling, education, research, sustainable consumption, transport, urban design, and many others—are taken into account, the future of global environmental politics does not look quite as grim as the undoubted failure of the intergovernmental negotiations in Rio suggests. Wales can also take encouragement from the fact that the Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development, of which it is a part, was formally recognized within the end of conference document that came out of Rio. This recognition should provide a more effective basis for innovative developments within regional government to influence the international sustainable development agenda.

The question remains, however, without an effective multilateral intergovernmental process, who will ensure that the poorest countries and communities are not left behind? That the effects of environmental degradation and climate change will not be inequitably distributed? That the rights and responsibilities of all will be defined and protected? That the worst states and corporations will be held accountable, just as the best are able to use summits to show off their commitments? That the future we want is a product of discussion and deliberation between all the world’s peoples, rather than those most captivating on a transitory summit stage? To put things another way, there is a limit to what can be achieved through unilateral national and local sustainable development initiatives, such as those that we can currently celebrate in Wales. This is why despite the justified frustration that people feel towards Rio+20, we must not abandon the project of developing a fair and effectively coordinated global response to the most pressing social, economic and environmental problems facing the planet.

Carl Death and Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University

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About carldeath

I teach and research international politics in Manchester.
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One Response to What is ‘The Future We Want’? Rio + & –

  1. katharinahone says:

    Great piece. And congratulations on getting it in the paper. Tweeted about it here: https://twitter.com/#!/climate_diplo

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