Opinion / Web Comments

Countries show low ambition at Rio+20

By Patrick Schroeder (chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2012-06-27 14:00

On the evening of June 22, 2012, the Rio+20 Earth Summit concluded with a consensus of governments and the adoption of the outcome document entitled "The Future We Want". China welcomed the outcome as a balanced, but not ideal result. Particularly China's concerns on trade measures and technology transfer had only been partly reflected in the text.

One of the important elements of the text is the issue of "Common but differentiated responsibilities" (CDBR), one of the initial Rio Principles. Having retained the CBDR principle in the 53-page statement is an important achievement for global equity. Another positive outcome of the Rio+20 Summit are Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will replace the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals from 2015. Furthermore, an important element is that governments for this first time agreed to look beyond just GDP as measure for a country’s progress.

The process leading up to the Rio+20 Summit was relatively open and provided a number of opportunities for the Major Groups of civil society to provide their recommendations. However, only very few of the recommendations could be found in the final outcome document. Especially women, indigenous people, environmental groups and the scientific research community felt that Rio did not deliver what is necessary to move the planet towards a sustainable development trajectory.

From the perspective of the scientific community, the agreed text is unsatisfactory in many aspects. Just before the Rio Summit, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issued the fifth Global Environmental Outlook which states that the planet is facing an ecological and social crisis. Hundreds of scientists who authored the report say that life on Earth could be on the way to an irreversible "tipping point", if countries continue business-as-usual development. One of the approaches recommended was the phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. UNEP, backed by the world’s leading scientists, said leaders should make specific moves on this issue in Rio. However, governments made no concrete commitment towards this end.

Overall, the contents of the text, what governments agreed to do, are only the low-hanging fruit of sustainable development. There are no clear guidelines for implementation and the text does not include timelines for specific actions, no specific milestones to be achieved and no specific indicators to measure progress. In some cases there has been backsliding on previous commitments. For example, regarding the reproductive rights of women, the outcome is a step back for women's rights compared to the Beijing Platform for Action which in 1995 set an agenda for women's empowerment.

Concerning the means of implementation, which includes funding for developing countries as well as technology transfer and capacity building, not enough willingness was shown on behalf of developed countries to support developing countries in realizing sustainable development, including a Green Economy. Unfortunately, no financial transaction tax was decided, which could have mobilized significant amounts of capital for implementation.

Regarding the institutional framework for sustainable development, governments at Rio could not agree that UNEP should be upgraded to a specialized agency in the UN system.

Governments and the multilateral process have not delivered what is necessary to put the planet on a trajectory towards sustainability. The outcome falls short of what is necessary to achieve sustainable development and safeguard the well-being of future generations.

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