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Rio+20: Defining The Future We Want?

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Corporate Social Responsibility Bulletin

June 20-22, 2012 delegates from more than 190 countries will meet in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to renew political commitment to sustainable development that was originally developed 20 years ago at a similar conference in Rio de Janeiro. The aim of Rio+20 is to get general agreement on a political action document currently titled “The Future We Want”, which focuses on sustainable development and the emerging concept of a ‘green economy’, about which there is some controversy. Developing and developed countries seem to have polarized views as to the definition of a green economy and its role in sustainable development, as well as how the financial burden of sustainable development should be distributed. This bulletin is meant to provide an overview of the antecedents for Rio+20 and a high-level summary of some of the issues which will be discussed.

The 1992 Rio Summit

The first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), more commonly known as the Earth summit or the Rio Summit (the Rio Summit), was held in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992.  The Rio Summit, which took place 20 years after the first global environmental conference (the UN Conference on the Human Environment), was unprecedented in both its size and scope: 172 governments participated with 108 heads of state attending. 

The Rio Summit addressed key issues including patterns of production, alternative sources of energy to replace the use of fossil fuels linked to climate change and the growing scarcity of water.

Attending governments, by consensus, adopted three agreements aimed at changing the approach to development:

  • Agenda 21 – a comprehensive 351-page program of action for sustainable development to balance economic growth, social equity and environmental protection;
  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development – a list of principles defining the rights and responsibilities of States regarding sustainable development; and
  • The Statement of Forest Principles – a series of principles for the sustainable management of forests worldwide.

In addition to the agreements, two Conventions were opened for signature at the Rio Summit: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC), which provides for protocols to set mandatory emission limits (the most well-known of which is the Kyoto Protocol) to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. 

Rio was followed by the Earth Summit+5 in 1997, a special session of the UN General Assembly in New York, and the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, both of which provided some further commitments and means of implementation for Agenda 21.

Rio +20

Commencing June 20, 2012, twenty years after the original Rio Summit, UN Member Nations  will again convene in Rio de Janeiro to address international sustainable development (a shared focus on economic, environmental and social goals, taking into account the needs of current and future generations). Rio+20 has three objectives:

  • securing renewed political commitment to sustainable development;
  • assessing the progress and implementation gaps in meeting already agreed upon commitments; and
  • addressing new and emerging challenges to sustainable development.


More than 130 heads of State and government, along with thousands of government officers from 190 countries, UN officials, corporate executives and civil society leaders are expected to attend the conference. Heads of state to attend the summit include Russia’s President Vladimir Putin; China’s Premier Wen Jia Bao; India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshinko Noda. However, some prominent figures will be missing from the negotiations including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not indicated whether he will attend.

Conference Themes

UN Member States have agreed upon two themes for the conference:

  • a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and
  • the institutional framework for sustainable development.

A Green Economy

The green economy theme recalls the original Rio Summit’s focus on the intersection between the environment and economy. The UN Environmental Programme defines a green economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks to ecological scarcity.”[1]  A green economy considers environmental stewardship and economic growth to be complementary aims.

While this term has been used academically, it has had little use in the international political forum; so much of the debate has been to define the term. Developing countries worry that the term will replace sustainable development as the new international framework and that this will turn the focus away from poverty eradication and the social pillar of sustainable development and increase the financial burden on developing countries. They have added to the draft outcome document that each country should use the concept of green economy in its own manner rather than have having a common standard for all countries[2]. However, if this is the outcome then the idea of the green economy will have no consistency and little impact.

Further, the G77 developing countries have called for the developed countries to take urgent action to change their lifestyles and adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption, while adding paragraphs to ensure that developing countries maintain the sovereign right to exploit their natural resources according to their own development policies and goals[3].

An Institutional Framework

Since the Rio Summit and the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, there has been a failure of governments to implement the commitments made. According to the fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO5), of the 90 most important international environmental objectives and goals, significant progress has been achieved in only four: the removal of lead from fuel, increased access to water supplies, increased research to reduce pollution of marine environments, and eliminating the use of substances that deplete the ozone layer. Some improvement has been made in relation to 40 of the goals. Little or no progress has been shown in 24 of the objectives including climate change, desertification and drought. Eight goals have shown no progress and further deterioration. The final 14 goals could not be appraised due to insufficient data[4].

The purpose of this theme is to provide an enabling framework for implementing the sustainable development commitments from the Rio, Johannesburg (2002) and Rio+20 Summits. There are many recommendations as to how to strengthen the co-ordination of international environmental activities including transforming the Commission on Sustainable Development into a Sustainable Development Council, creating a high-level political forum on sustainable development and turning the UN Environmental Programme into a UN specialized agency with universal membership[5].

Draft Outcome Document

The aim of Rio+20 is to reach consensus on a focused political action document currently titled “The Future We Want”[6]. Negotiators have taken part in eight rounds of formal and informal preparatory talks. As of the last round of talks, which concluded June 2 in New York, negotiators have reached agreement on 70 of 259 paragraphs with a number of key issues remaining. With so little consensus reached on the document to date, commentators worry that either negotiators will not be able to reach agreement or that the document will be so watered down that it will have little effect. The final Preparatory Committee meeting before the conference is scheduled for June 13-15.

One section of the document over which negotiating tensions currently exist between developing and developed countries is the financial chapter. The G77 developing countries are calling for “new and additional financial resources” to support the commitments made in the outcome document. The financial resources they are requesting include increased official development assistance, dedicated resources provided through international financial institutions, and increased resources provided to the UN development programs. Developed countries including Canada and the United States have called for the deletion of these paragraphs. Further, these developed countries are calling for the financing responsibility of social development to be shifted toward the private sector and South-South cooperation (processes, institutions, arrangements and financing provided by developing countries to other developing countries in the pursuit of common development goals)[7].

Sustainable Development Goals

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has stated his intention for leaders at Rio+20 to endorse the idea of sustainable development goals (SDGs), similar to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight goals with time-bound targets to reduce extreme poverty. The SDGs would have clear and measurable objectives to follow the 15 year MDG period (ending in 2015)[8]

Rio+20 is intended to act as a launch for the SDGs with a high-level panel to be appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to consider the specifics of the SDGs. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will act as co-chairs[9]. However, the G77 developing countries and China want governments to decide the SDGs rather than UN experts. The EU is pushing for priority goals to be listed in the outcome document with indicators and targets for action to give Rio+20 some tangible results[10].

The strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs should be considered in the development of the SDGs to ensure the greatest chance of success. According to Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the MDGs, goals should be easy to state and simple to remember, a set of moral and practical commitments rather than legally binding ones, and be achieved through specific and practical measures.  The SDGs should include intermediate goals and milestones, engage the private sector and make accurate and current data regularly available[11].

Other Critical Issues

Rio+20 will focus on other critical issues including employment and livelihood security, energy, sustainable cities, food security, and sustainable agriculture, water management, healthy oceans, gender equality and women’s empowerment and disaster readiness.


With so many issues still unresolved in the draft outcome document, it will be interesting to see whether member states will be able to come to an agreement by the end of the summit and if so, whether to achieve agreement, member parties water down the document so much that it provides no tangible or actionable measures.

[1] United Nations Environmental Programme Green Economy Initiative

[2] Rio+20 Earth Summit Draft Text, June 2, 2012, Chapter III

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Despite agreed environmental goals, world still on unsustainable path” press release, June 10, 2012

[5] Rio+20 Earth Summit Draft Text, June 2, 2012, Chapter IV

[6] Rio+20 Earth Summit Draft Text, June 2, 2012

[7] Rio+20 Earth Summit Draft Text, June 2, 2012 , Chapter VI-A

[8]“Ban Ki-Moon ‘We want to make Rio+20 a conference of decisive impact and ambition’”press release June 8, 2012

[9] Jeffrey D Sachs “From Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals”, The Lancet, Vol 379 June 9, 2012 at 2206

[10] Rio+20 Earth Summit Draft Text, June 2, 2012, Chapter V-B

[11] Jeffrey D Sachs “From Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals”, The Lancet, Vol 379 June 9, 2012 at 2210-2211.

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