Rio+20: Dig deep, prepare to act and have hope
Farooq Ullah, Executive Director Designate of the Stakeholder Forum, reflects on the outcomes of the Rio+20 conference, finding some successes to celebrate – a mandate for corporate sustainability, the commitment to establish global Sustainable Development Goals, scope for meaningful stakeholder engagement – but no great leap to the future we want. To build on the steps forward, countries must now focus on their own national delivery plans while aligning local and global action.
SD Scene publishes news and comment on sustainable development from across government, business and civil society. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect government policy.
The negotiations are over, the leaders are speechmaking and the NGOs are unhappy. Two and half years of a (at times painful) multilateral process to chart the future of the planet and its people has resulted in a mixed bag. At best the Rio+20 document is a series of mediocre steps forward, at worst it is failure to deliver on many of the things we need most. But it is too simplistic to declare Rio+20 an utter failure or a roaring success.
It is important to look deeper than a superficial assessment to understand what really happened. Sustainable development is complex; I wish it were easier. There are, without a doubt, some successes that must be celebrated, minor though they may be. Cynicism will not create sustainable world.
So what are some of these successes? The corporate sustainability paragraph gives a mandate to have companies report on sustainability impacts and the beginning of the means to hold them to account. We have a process (but no themes) to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as good language on stakeholder engagement within the process and for the integration of all similar processes. And we have a new high-level political forum in the UN system with reasonably well-defined functions.
But the failures are quite stark. The language on the right to water and sanitation is vague and evasive. The text reaffirms commitments which are not universally agreed, rather than affirming the right itself. This is despite the fact that Canada and the UK have, for the first time, recognised the universal right to water and sanitation respectively (another success of the Rio+20 process). Likewise, the right to reproductive health was removed due to effective lobbying from some quarters. And despite 20 years of talking about it, there is no action plan for eliminating environmental harmful subsidies (such as fossil fuels). The amount spent on these subsidies would go a long way to providing the financing for the transition to a sustainable world. In fact, the means of implementation remain weak. Nor is there a clear statement on the need to remain within environmental limits, thereby defining new pathways to inclusive growth.
Overall, there is a severe lack of specifics in the document about how exactly we are going to deliver sustainable development, how it will be funded, what the green economy actually is and what are its underpinning principles.
Ultimately, Rio has delivered series of loosely connected small steps. Sadly it has not delivered the giant, coordinated leap to the future we want, nor the one we need.
It is also sad that sustainability is not delivered in one fell swoop of the pen. However, we now must take these small steps and build on them. It takes hard work and on the ground delivery. And there’s the rub; implementation is the tricky part.
Countries must ‘take Rio home’ with them and focus on national delivery plans. That is the level that implementation will actually happen. But there must be alignment between global goals and local action. As resources for sustainable development are scarce, the need to be both effective and efficient is greater than ever. Each country will want to approach this task in its own way. But some key elements will need to be addressed everywhere. At the national and local levels we must now:
- Improve government and legislative machinery for sustainable development;
- Model new and better processes for engaging civil society and Major Groups in the sustainability transition;
- Create or renew national sustainable development strategies or frameworks in the light of the Rio outcomes, including in particular the new global SDGs;
- Review policies and programmes in the light of the Rio outcomes, including the application of green economy principles and instruments; and
- Deliver formal and informal education and training for sustainable development.
Rio+20 has not been the pivotal moment in history we wanted; that much is certain. And while it has given us new hooks from which to hang future work, it is clearer than ever that time is not on our side. We are sitting on an ecological time bomb.
Therefore, we must take whatever we can home from Rio and roll up our sleeves in anticipation of working harder then ever. But I hope that we will also take hope from one another. The commitment, passion, creativeness and compassion I have experienced at Rio will eventually win the day. That is the day we will finally get the future we want.
This article was originally published in outreach, the Stakeholder Forum’s multi-stakeholder magazine.
Do you have a comment on this page?
All comments are moderated: we will not publish irrelevant or inappropriate comments. Please note that we require your email to validate your message and will not publish it or use it for any other purpose.