Stewart M. Patrick

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Rio Plus 20: What Prospects for the Next UN Mega-Conference?

by Stewart M. Patrick
March 30, 2012

A boat is seen near Copacabana Beach at sunrise in Rio de Janeiro March 14, 2012. (Sergio Moraes /Courtesy Reuters) A boat is seen near Copacabana Beach at sunrise in Rio de Janeiro March 14, 2012. (Sergio Moraes /Courtesy Reuters)

On June 20-21, the world will descend on Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Twenty years after the last Earth Summit in Rio—heralded as an epochal event—expectations are underwhelming. No major treaties are on the table, unlike in 1992, when the event produced major conventions on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification. The world seems exhausted by UN mega-meetings, so full of sound and fury but delivering little. And at a time of continued economic difficulties, governments around the world are looking inward, despite looming environmental crises. The United States, which tried to steer the Brazilians away from a leaders-level summit, has not even decided who will head its delegation.

If this seems a depressing scene-setter, the Rio summit is not fated for failure. It may yet exceed expectations with a low-key approach focused less on the painstaking negotiation of treaties than on generating practical national commitments to advance sustainable development. In lieu of grand North-South bargains, we should expect a messier multilateralism, involving parallel national initiatives and innovative public-private partnerships.

There is growing global sentiment that the era of grand multilateral treaty-making is over. Recurrent disputes over burden-sharing, and the specter of national vetoes, tends to tie negotiators into knots. Rather than seeking common ground–and often bland consensus—among 193 diverse countries, progress at major UN conferences will increasingly depend on individual countries coming to the table to declare what they are prepared to do, at a national level, to advance internationally-agreed goals. To this end, the United States is pressing all governments coming to Rio to arrive with a list of concrete commitments on the Rio agenda’s seven critical issues: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness. The idea is to compile all of these national commitments in an online compendium.

At the same time, global environmental governance is too important—and far too complicated—to be left to states. No government—or set of governments—can deliver on this agenda alone. Accordingly, last year the Rio Plus Twenty preparatory committee invited not only UN member nations, but also “all relevant stakeholders” to submit statements that could inform the conference’s outcome document. The committee received a whopping 677 submissions from UN member nations and other interested groups. Over fifty thousand people, including countless private sector and civil society representatives, will participate in the conference itself—serving in some cases on member state delegations.

So what does the United States hope—or expect—to achieve at this mega-meeting?

In its own submission to the outcome document, the Obama administration has wisely framed “sustainable development” in terms likely to appeal to developing countries, who often suspect the phrase is a code for Western environmental protectionism. Rio is an opportunity, the United States is saying, for developing countries to achieve their economic growth and poverty alleviation goals, while also advancing social justice and preserving the ecological foundations required for human life.

In terms of its specific goals, Washington emphasizes three areas where it wants to see progress:

  • Building Sustainable Cities and Promoting Green Technology: With more than half of the world’s inhabitants living in cities—predicted to rise to two-thirds by 2030—the challenge of sustainable development is increasingly an urban one. The U.S. document focuses heavily on the capacity of green technology to improve the infrastructure of urban energy transmission, transportation, and sanitation.
  • Preserving the Natural Environment: Enumerating how current consumption patterns are depleting the planet’s “natural infrastructure,” the United States is calling for more efficient systems of natural resource management and agricultural production. It also calls on governments to capture environmentally damaging “market externalities,” by placing a monetary value on vital ecosystem services and incorporating the costs of unsustainable practices on corporate and national balance sheets.
  • Improving Global Environmental Governance:  There is general consensus that international institutions to promote sustainable development are underpowered. One flashpoint at Rio will be the proposal, pushed by France and Germany, to create a fully-fledged UN Environmental Organization, akin to the World Health Organization. The United States opposes such a move, preferring to “strengthen” the existing United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Finally, Washington endorses the formulation of a set of “Sustainable Development Goals,” as a worthy successor to the Millennium Development Goals  (set to expire in 2015).

In this approach, the Obama administration is placing its faith in more creative “bottom-up” innovations that may percolate up from a variety of actors.  The time has come to “go beyond traditional models for global cooperation centered on government to government meetings and formal institutions,” reads the official U.S. submission to the Rio summit. Translated from diplomatese into plain English, the United States believes that new communication technologies enable civil society, the private sector, and governments to learn from each other and develop new methods.

This approach has some potential. It might engender healthy competition and result in faster technological or policy innovations, while simultaneously allowing groups across the world to learn from each other. In contrast, the Copenhagen and Durban conferences of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change only made anemic progress. When countries can devise the most appropriate plan tailored to their national circumstances, they may be able to make pledges that are stronger and, possibly, more realistic to implement.

But troubling questions remain: Are parallel national commitments sufficient to meet today’s massive ecological crises, from climate change and depleted fisheries to dwindling biodiversity and rampant deforestation? How will countries without adequate funds or capacity actually implement the commitments they do make? How can countries measure the strength of national commitments, and determine if they are robust enough? And most importantly, who will hold these “stakeholders” accountable?

The U.S. approach relies, implicitly, on public pressure. It hopes that after putting national commitments online, and making them globally available, citizens across the world will pressure governments or private companies to fulfill them. But the record of voluntary commitments is a mixed one. After all, most of the MDGs are off-target, despite twelve years of high-profile attention. In an earlier era, nations compiled a 257-page international compendium of standards and norms on crime prevention, only to see it gather dust on bookshelves. Ultimately, countries had to negotiate a binding treaty on transnational organized crime to meet the threat. The question looming at Rio is whether the voluntary, bottom-up approach to global environmental governance will show any more promise.

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