Rio 20+, a Failed Effort to Build a New Worldwide Sustainability Agreement
Rio 20+, a Failed Effort to Build a New Worldwide Sustainability Agreement

In June 2012, the biggest United Nations conference in its history, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+20), was held in Rio de Janeiro. More than 45,000 people participated, including more than 100 heads of state, though not including Presidents Obama, Merkel, and Cameron.

Organizers hoped that the conference would: 1)produce a new set of sustainability goals that would build upon the Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015; 2) initiate the Green Economy concept that would place sustainability into economic decision-making; 3) create a world organization of the environment; 4) pass a landmark agreement that was as ambitious as the 1992 agreements on biodiversity, desertification, and climate change; and, 5) institute funding mechanisms to help developing countries reach these goals.

On nearly all accounts, the conference failed. In fact, it seems that the lack of major progress is the only thing that all participants and pundits can agree upon.  This news analysis will examine theories as to why the conference failed, highlight the achievements that were made at Rio 20+ and the People’s Sustainability Summit and consider actions that can be taken to build a sustainable world.

Why did Rio 20+ Fail?

There are many reasons for the failure of Rio 20+. One of the most widely stated reasons was the lack of political will. Priorities lie elsewhere. The lack of presence of Obama, Merkel and Cameron did not help build momentum for a historic agreement. Heads of state are needed to make major sign-offs and if major world leaders are not there, these agreements are less likely to be signed.1

There are new global dynamics in environmental leadership. The United States and many European countries are no longer taking the lead as they have to deal with economic crises. They are cautious in taking up the mantle of sustainability when faced with poverty, unemployment and economic insecurity.2   One exception is the United Kingdom, which will be requiring major corporations to measure their carbon footprint. Carbon reporting will force companies to reduce pollution and become more sustainable.3

On the other hand, some developing countries are unilaterally taking actions to make their countries’ natural resources sustainable. For example, Mexico recently passed a landmark climate change law. China is now the world’s largest renewable energy investor. Colombia, with the backing of Guatemala, created the idea of new sustainable development goals.4

The Green Economy concept spearheaded by the European Union failed because developed countries and developing countries viewed this initiative in different ways. The European Union saw it as an opportunity to put forth a development model that did not focus on economics first and environment later, but instead encouraged economic growth in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner.

Some developing countries felt that its environmental standards would reduce exports of emerging countries.5  Others did not appreciate rules being imposed on the ways in which development would be carried out. Some feared that they would not have the financial resources to carry-out this concept if it was an unfunded mandate.6  While, others disapproved because it removed the social dimension from sustainability, leaving only the economic and environmental dimensions.7  Some felt it strengthened multinationals at the expense of developing countries, who could continue to pollute the environment.8  Many saw parallels to colonial periods when developed countries forced developing countries to trade natural resources at discount prices.9

For others, the inability of the conference delegates to pass a sweeping, detailed agreement is just part of the larger issue of the inability of world leaders to pass any large environmental agreements or even to follow-through on existing ones. The Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 and subsequent gatherings in Cancun and Durban did not produce major agreements. Furthermore, of the 500 internationally agreed upon goals and objectives that were passed at the original Earth Summit and subsequent meetings, significant progress was only made on four goals: eliminating CFCs, removing lead from gasoline, improving access to clean water, and strengthening research on ocean pollution.10

Taking that idea even further, it might not be just environmental agreements that are difficult to pass, but honestly any international agreement. World leaders have not been able to adequately address the European financial crisis or the violence in Syria.11

What did Rio 20+ Accomplish?

While the conference did not end up with a strong final outcome document, a watered down version was passed and included some small victories. The concept of sustainable development was broadened to include poverty eradication and social inclusion. Another success was the inclusion of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will provide yardsticks for conversations on sustainable development and a framework for the discussion.12  The goals may be used to fire up public imagination and motivate all stakeholders to take action.

Another success was the hundreds of voluntary commitments that were made at the conference and at the People’s Summit.13  At the conference, the eight largest multilateral development banks committed to give $200 billion to finance sustainable transport systems.14  The People’s Summit provided an important alternative outlet for mobilization. Despite transportation and infrastructure challenges, more than two hundred civil society groups participated.15

In the side meetings, governments and companies recognized the need to invest in “natural capital.” The Indonesian Prime Minister called for the protection of the oceans.  Femsa, a corporation, highlighted the impact of ecowater funds in Brazil. Business and NGOs are trying to scale up sustainable resource use and engage producers and consumers. Furthermore, there seems to be a groundswell of support for ending fossil fuel subsidies, including a massive Twitter campaign that was held at the People’s Summit. Though this issue did not ultimately end up in the outcome document, it too became part of the conversation.16  Most commentators found the energy, determination and excitement of civil society groups to carry out change to be the biggest take-away from the conference.

Where do we go from here?

The Red Cross Red Crescent issued a press release stating:

we must listen to and invest in people’s abilities to bring about long lasting development in their communities. We cannot count on governments alone to solve the world’s problems and meet the needs of the most vulnerable. The “we” refers to all partners needed for strengthening resilience and development, namely civil society organizations, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the UN, the private sector, local communities and governments.

For them and for many of the participants, the future will not be shaped by an outcome document, but rather by how all the stakeholders mobilize humanity for action.17

For others, the solution lies in tackling small, practical problems first before trying to handle large, overarching problems. Thomas Bollyky of the Council on Foreign Relations recommends focusing on small-scale initiatives that build momentum and produce tangible change at the national, city, and state levels. Bjorn Lomberg recommends tackling the lack of clean water and sanitation, and air pollution. These types of problems are causing deaths now and people may be more receptive to addressing them rather than climate change. Lomberg agrees that Rio’s message is that top-down problem solving is not working, so focusing on smaller problems will accomplish more.18

Large conferences do not seem to have a large impact in any major field in the short-run. If momentum is able to be built around the Sustainable Development Goals, similar to the momentum around the Millennium Development Goals then this conference will remembered in a different light. The task-force has their work cut out for them, but hopefully they will create something that will spur governments, civil society, corporations, and individuals to action.


1  Rennkamp, Britta. “Africa: Rio+20 – the Elephant That Gave Birth to a Rat.” AllAFrica. June 26, 2012.
2  Griffin, Murray. “Rio+20: On the Same Planet, But Not the Same Page.” Bloomberg News. June 26, 2012.
3  Gray, Louise. “Rio +20: Natural assets will be recorded as part of GDP to measure how quickly they are being lost, Nick Clegg announces.” The Telegraph. June 20, 2012.
4  Griffin, Murray. “Rio+20: On the Same Planet, But Not the Same Page.” Bloomberg News. June 26, 2012.
5  Bollyky, Thomas. “Overcoming Rio+20′s ‘Summit Fatigue.’” Council on Foreign Relations. June 22, 2012.
6  Griffin, Murray. “Rio+20: On the Same Planet, But Not the Same Page.” Bloomberg News. June 26, 2012.
7  Rennkamp, Britta. “Africa: Rio+20 – the Elephant That Gave Birth to a Rat.” AllAFrica. June 26, 2012.
8  “Statement of Civil Society in Latin American and the Caribbean on Rio+20.” June 22, 2012.
9  Doebbler, Curtis. “Rio minus 20.” Al Ahram. June 26, 2012.
10  Weiss, Kenneth. “Rio +20 Summit kicks off amid global pessimism.” Christian Science Monitor. June 19, 2012.
11  Walsh, Brian. “What the Failure of Rio+20 Means for the Climate.” Time. June 26, 2012.
12  Bollyky, Thomas. “Overcoming Rio+20′s ‘Summit Fatigue’.” Council on Foreign Relations. June 22, 2012.
13  Takemoto, Kazuhiko. ” Rio+20 — What Comes Next?Huffington Post. June 26, 2012.
14  Bollyky, Thomas. “Overcoming Rio+20′s ‘Summit Fatigue’.” Council on Foreign Relations. June 22, 2012.
15  Watts, Jonathan. “Rio+20 People’s summit gathers pace.” The Guardian. June 18, 2012.
16  Llana, Sara Miller. “Rio+20: 5 key takeaways.” Christian Science Monitor.
17  “Africa: Rio+20 – Red Cross Red Crescent Urges Investment in Resilience and Women.” AllAfrica. June 25, 2012.
18  Walsh, Brian. “What the Failure of Rio+20 Means for the Climate.” Time. June 26, 2012.

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