Diplomacy beats sustainability at Rio+20


, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Over 100 heads of state and government will most probably sign later this week an agreement that was supposed to take the world on a more sustainable and equitable development path, but which is now so full of compromises that it is mostly meaningless. The “political resolution” of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20, is full of generalities, while almost all specific action points have been thrown out.

The resolution went through protracted negotiations for months, then hectic negotiations that ended in the early hours of Tuesday morning. It was hailed as a triumph of diplomacy by host country Brazil. But even Brazil’s environment minister Izabella Taxeira acknowledged its shortcomings when she said “the result is satisfactory because there is a result”. A senior Indian negotiator described it as a “balanced document, and in the UN the definition of a balanced document is one that makes every country equally unhappy”.

The 49-page resolution makes all the right noises about “renewing commitment to sustainable development”, 20 years after the Earth Summit in this same coastal city of Brazil was supposed to have set the world on that path. It also talks of the need to eradicate poverty. Developing country negotiators said they had to fight very hard to get that in.

The resolution talks of the need to involve civil society and businesses in sustainable development without getting into specifics. It does the same with the green economy, the matter of upgrading the UN Environment Programme, the need to finance poor countries if they are to move towards a greener economy, food and water security, energy, tourism, transport, urbanization, health, population, employment, protecting the oceans, disaster risk reduction, climate change, protecting forests and biodiversity, combating desertification, land degradation and drought, protecting mountain ecosystems, sound management of chemicals and waste, the need for sustainable consumption and production, the need to regulate mining more effectively, the need to push education better, gender equity and the need to develop a set of sustainable development goals.

But in each of these crucial areas, the methods to implement the resolution are missing. Developing countries – who negotiate under the G77 plus China umbrella – have been pointing out that decisions taken in 1992 have not been implemented. However, there is little about the means to implement them now. Similarly, in the field of technology transfer, there is just talk of the need to do so, and a sentence saying “We agree to explore modalities in the relevant fora for enhanced access to environmentally sound technologies by developing countries.” There is no mention of the vexed question of intellectual property rights, and if poor countries will be helped to gain patented green technologies at below-market prices.

Given this declaration, it was little surprise that senior G77 negotiator Quamrul Choudhury said, “Most developing country elements have been glossed over.” The issue of how to use transboundary rivers in a more sustainable way is “nowhere in the text”, he pointed out. 

Antonio Tujan, director of the NGO IBON, said, “The draft outcome document for Rio+20 might as well be an empty coffin in which to bury the promises of Rio from 20 years ago. It does nothing to correct the unsustainable mode of production, consumption and distribution that profits a tiny elite while destroying millions of lives, devastates the environment and endangers humanity’s future.”