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Rio+20: Successes and Failures

“A strong contribution from all stakeholders should make the UN’s Rio+20 conference a defining moment that sparks global innovation to move us towards a sustainable future. We urge the world to grasp this moment and make history”, was the heartfeltplea of the scientific world on the eve of the meeting.

The moment was obviously not fully grasped, and Rio+20 will be remembered as a milestone in the sustainable development history of failures from the 1980s until today. Let us see why.

The outcome of Rio+20 is represented by the document, negotiated and shared by the parties since 2010, and subsequently modified a number of times during the negotiations of the preparatory Committees, that arrived at Rio with the title “The Future We Want”, where it was adopted with minor changes.

“The most controversial paragraphs were left out”, says Bedrich Moldan with a touch of realism. Bedrich Moldan has been a direct witness to 20 years of international negotiations for sustainable development. “The document approved is very general, with no commitment, and no time frame.” Before the conference, the European Union in particular had put some key, ambitious issues, on the negotiation table. Let us briefly examine the main three points.

The ambition was to strengthen the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) till it becomes a specialized agency with its own budget. It had to be capable of influencing the political agenda, just like the trade, employment or health agencies. Unfortunately, the document approved in Rio merely states that UNEP will have worldwide membership, but does not mention an extension of its role or financial resources.

Second, the EU had taken upon itself the well-known battle to abolish the subsidies that support the consumption of fossil fuels in a number of developing countries. While on the one hand the EU support other harmful subsidies, such as those for agriculture, on the other hand this proposal had and still has only limited chances, because there is first of all the“need to tackle special interest groups” as pointed out by several economists, such as Marianne Fay of the World Bank and Jean-Philippe Barde, 35 years at the OECD.

Another main point of the European agenda, which was not fulfilled in Rio, was making the so-called “Green Economy” one of the pillars of sustainable development. Many developing countries are unfortunately very skeptical toward the concept itself and fear the imposition of restrictions on their plans of growth. These same countries insisted on the fact that any transitions towardgreen economies could only occur with substantial transfers of funds and knowledge from the Northern to the Southern regions of the world.

As could be easily predicted before the conference, the lack of funds due to the global economic crisis was the main setback for these ambitious negotiations. Many observers, however, state that Rio has achieved some small results.

First of all, the conference clearly defined a post-2015 process for the development of Sustainable Development Goals. The controversial discussion held in Rio+20 about how to grow Green, could well leave the floor to a discussion on how to measure Growth in a way which has to be Green. “We want a world where the criteria by which you judge success or failures of a nation would be the wealth of a nation, not the GDP of a nation”, just “taking economics seriously” argues Sir Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge in the interview he granted Re3.

Another positive, but somewhat surprising, outcome of Rio+20 was the initiative that has received over 700 voluntary commitments made by organizations or through international agreements. Collectively, these commitments mobilize more than $500 billion in actions for the 13 most important commitments towards sustainable development. These numbers show that there is already a global commitment for sustainable development, even without the promise of fund transfers by political leaders. In fact, the summit in Rio was also an excellent occasion to create and consolidate the networks among the numerous associations and not for profit organizations operating for sustainable development at the local level.

However, great disappointment remains, in particular in the scientific world, as the final document does not acknowledge the importance of the role played by the historical scientific conference on sustainability that was held in London at the end of March 2012 – in spite of the excellent results achieved.

Beyond the diffusion of the effective term Anthropocene coined to indicate the new geological era where mankind governs global environmental changes, the final document of this conference, the “State of the Planet”, indicates that “researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilization.”

This document also indicates as the key point of the transition toward a sustainable development the “growing evidence that diverse partnerships amongst local, national and regional governments as well as business and civil society provide essential safety nets should singular global policies fail – a polycentric approach for planetary stewardship”. The document calls for a new agreement between science and society, where science informs policy-makers, thus enabling them to make swift and responsible decisions.

This must be the new starting point of a real transition toward sustainable development.

*This article appeared originally on FEEM’s e-magazine Re3