With the conclusion of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as Rio+20) last week, the recriminations have begun. As Reuters put it in a sentence typical of the coverage, “Global leaders on Friday wrap up a United Nations development summit with little to show but a lackluster agreement.”
Indeed, while participating governments agreed on a 283-paragraph outcome document, called “The World We Want,” the Economist reported that the document “was filled with weasel words and compromises.” Such massive summits (Rio had some 50,000 attendees) are rarely conducive to comprehensive, binding agreements. So, in an effort to find something good to say about the conference, I will settle on the fact that at least it gave some visibility to several important issues.
The first is food security. At the Rio conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Zero Hunger Challenge that aims to ensure adequate food for everyone, improve child health through better nutrition, boost the sustainability of food systems, reduce food waste, and raise the income of small farmers. The British government committed £150 million to help farmers adapt to climate change. The challenge has no deadline, but it brings high-level funding and attention to a vital concern.
The U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative spotlights another crucial issue: clean energy. This program, launched by the State Department, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, will use small U.S. government grants to leverage far larger investments from OPIC and the private sector in clean energy projects in Africa. Initial grants can fund assessments or land surveys, for example, that are needed to unlock private investment. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in announcing the program in Rio, clean and accessible energy sources are essential to “further our sustainability goals while also furthering economic opportunities and better lives for tens of millions of men, women, and children.”
It was also heartening to see some attention to fuel subsidies. As I wrote on the blog in February and March, subsidies for fossil fuel consumption strain government budgets and often benefit those least in need. They also promote the use of dirty fuels instead of encouraging the development of cleaner ones. But lifting subsidies is a vexing political problem. In the Rio outcome document, “countries reaffirm the commitments they have made to phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” and “invite others to consider rationalizing” their subsidies, “taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries.” This highly conditional language is less than inspiring, but the spotlight on the need to lift subsidies is welcome. An anti-subsidy Twitter campaign tied to Rio also gained significant attention, with the “endfossilfuelsubsidies” hashtag reaching second place on the global list of trending topics.
A final topic that got some attention is what will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they come to an end in 2015. The governments of Colombia and Guatemala have proposed Sustainable Development Goals that link environmental and human development concerns. The final declaration of an NGO conference held by the UN last September proposes seventeen such goals. The Rio outcome document says nothing specific about the content of sustainable development goals, but it endorses the idea and establishes a 30-member working group to craft a proposal next year. As scholars and practitioners continue to assess the world’s uneven progress toward the MDGs, questions about the value of this kind of global benchmark will persist.
Above all, Rio’s outcome speaks clearly to the diversity of the twenty-first century development landscape. Governments, international and regional organizations, civil society, the private sector, individual citizens, and many others should—and do—play a vocal role. While this makes sweeping accords harder to reach, it facilitates an array of smaller but potentially valuable collaborations. A New York Times piece notes that on the margins of the conference, attendees reached “hundreds of side agreements… that offer the promise of incremental but real progress.” Participants at Rio ranged from Microsoft to the Maldives. I’m no fan of 50,000-strong global gatherings, but at least Rio provided a platform for action among diverse players who—in the absence of global consensus—can drive development goals forward in incremental ways.