Rich nations backtracking as Rio Summit nears

By Martin Khor

As the Rio summit on sustainable development nears, governments have yet to agree on most issues, and rich countries are backtracking on the original principles and commitments made 20 years ago.

With only 10 days to go before the start of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the countries are still far from agreeing on what to say in a summit declaration or plan of action.

The final meeting to prepare for the conference last week at the UN headquarters in New York made some progress, but it was not enough.

Only 70 paragraphs of a total 329 in the latest draft declaration have been agreed on. There are differing views in the rest, which have to be bridged when the delegates meet again on June 13 in Rio.

The political leaders are meeting on June 20-23 for what is dubbed as the Rio plus 20 summit, so called because it is marking the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit of 1992, also held in Rio.

More than a hundred heads of state or government are expected to attend Rio + 20, making it the most important international conference this year.

It will be held amid a global financial crisis, growing unemployment and worsening environmental problems, including increasing water scarcity and floods, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and climate change.

These are all part of the crisis in sustainable development and its three dimensions – economic, social and environment.

Unfortunately, the summit comes at a time when developed and developing countries seem less and less able to reach a common understanding on key issues and principles.

Big differences have emerged on the three new issues being addressed by the conference – the concept of the green economy, how to define sustainable development goals, and what new institutional framework to create to house future activities on sustainable development.

But what is even more worrying is that the developed countries are attempting to remove or dilute the principles agreed to in Rio 20 years ago, and to backtrack on the commitments they had made to assist developing countries through finance and technology transfer in order to implement sustainable development.

Thus the North-South divide is not only over specific issues but is also at the deep level of the fundamentals that lie at the foundations of international cooperation of the past many decades.

These include the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), and the commitments on technology transfer and finance.

The CBDR was one of the Rio Principles adopted in 1992. It was agreed that all countries have a common responsibility to protect the environment, but also differentiated responsibilities because the rich countries should play the leading role, due to their greater contribution to the environmental crisis and their higher economic status.

This basic principle is under attack. In the recent negotiations, the United States has made it clear it cannot accept CBDR. Wherever the term is mentioned, it wants it deleted.

Almost all developed countries use the excuse that no single Rio principle should be singled out and a general reference to the set of Rio principles should suffice.

This is causing great concern to the developing countries, grouped in the G77 and to China. For them, the clear reaffirmation of the CBDR principle in particular, and the Rio principles in general, is the most important point that Rio + 20 must proclaim. Otherwise it would be a great retreat from the original Rio.

The second serious problem is the developed countries’ back tracking on their commitment to transfer technology to developing countries.

In the section on technology transfer in the draft declaration, the US, European Union, Canada and Australia do not even want any reference to technology transfer in the title itself.

The original title in the text by the co-chairs of the meeting is “Technology development and transfer”. The US, supported by Canada and Australia, want to delete the word “transfer” and instead change the title to “Technology development, innovation and science”.

The EU also wants a new title: “Research, Innovation and Technology Development.” This is the clearest indication of an intention to kill the concept, let alone the commitment to technology transfer.

However, there are still some negotiating days ahead, and there is a slim chance that there may be a change of heart at Rio itself.


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First Round of ‘Informal-Informal’ Negotiations on the Zero Draft of the Outcome Document and Third Intersessional Meeting of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Delegates resumed their discussions on the outcome document for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20) during back-to-back meetings from 19-27  March 2012 at UN Headquarters in New York. The first “informal informal” consultations to negotiate the draft outcome document took place from 19-23 March, followed by the  Third Intersessional Meeting, which took place from 26-27 March.

Negotiations were based on the “zero draft,” which was developed by the Co-Chairs and Bureau of the UNCSD Preparatory Committee. Titled “The Future We Want,” the document was released on 10 January 2012. The draft incorporated the input received by the UNCSD Secretariat from member states and other stakeholders by 1 November 2011 (referred to as the “compilation document”) as well as comments offered during a 15-16 December 2011 Second Intersessional Meeting of the UNCSD. The first and second readings of the first two sections of the zero draft (the Preamble/Stage Setting and Renewing Political Commitment Sections) were conducted during a three-day session in January. Written comments on the remaining three sections-Green Economy in the Context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, and Framework for Action and Follow-up-were submitted and compiled by the Secretariat into a draft that was used for negotiations during the March UNCSD meetings.

During the March meetings, delegations discussed additional amendments and responded to other delegations’ amendments on most of the text. The first reading of the sections on the green economy, institutional framework and framework for action took place during the week-long informal informal consultations. A second reading of these three sections, along with a third reading of the Preamble and most of the Renewing Political Commitment sections, was conducted during the two-day intersessional meeting.

While Major Group representatives and some delegations bemoaned the large number of brackets placed around various textual amendments, many noted that the real decisions on whether specific text will remain in the outcome document and in what format it will appear will begin during the next round of informal informal consultations. Others anticipated that the delegations at the next meeting, from 23 April – 4 May, would use the information they gained from the March discussion of positions (and, perhaps more importantly, from the behind the scenes consultations to consolidate the positions of negotiating blocs), to begin to reach agreement on what the Rio+20 outcome document will bring to the evolution of the global approach to sustainable development policy.


Delegates that gathered at UN Headquarters for seven negotiating days in March found themselves tasked with a very demanding assignment: the “zero draft” of the outcome document for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20) had ballooned from 19 to approximately 206 pages, when all proposed amendments were added. Delegates devoted the majority of their time to a “first reading” of the sections on green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, the institutional framework for sustainable development, and the framework for action and follow-up. Many observers commented that “reading” aptly described the session: as proposals for additions, changes and deletions in the zero draft text added yet more pages to its length and were often offered with limited explanation.

Alongside this process, the corridors of the UN Headquarters North Lawn Building were abuzz with parallel meetings and side events. In contrast to the main meeting, forums and discussions held at lunchtimes and evenings provided substantial presentations and discussion of policy options, while intense networking took place in the corridors. The disparity between the energy in the corridors and side events compared to that in the informal informal negotiations raised questions about what the Rio+20 Conference can actually achieve. This analysis considers that challenge in light of the seven negotiating days in March.


Delegates in 2012 find themselves in a very different world than their counterparts did in 1992. That Summit had higher ambitions and more negotiating days-the UNCED PrepCom met for an organizational and four substantive sessions for a total of 18 weeks over two years. In contrast, UN General Assembly Resolution 64/236, which set out the parameters for Rio+20, established a limited agenda and limited preparation time. Interest in sustainable development today is more dispersed across constituencies, and many more players are in the field.

While governments are being called on to take strong and decisive action at Rio+20, the push-and-pull of civil society participation has greatly intensified, and intergovernmental processes are both more numerous and more complex, thereby increasing the demands on the time and energy of negotiators.

What this means is that the Rio+20 preparatory process is only one of many venues for decisions on environmental, social and economic development-related issues. Consequently, some suggested that this situation lessens the potential influence of the decisions to be taken in Rio. In effect, they argue that it is a little wheel, compared to the big wheels of the climate change process, trade agreements or the international financial institutions, leading some to wonder whether Rio is the right process to address global challenges twenty years after its namesake.

Inevitably, comparisons are being made with the hopes and intentions of the first Rio Conference: many point out that the current debates are rooted in decisions from the past 20 years. Developing countries look at the agreements over this period, and what they see as the lack of full implementation of commitments made at the Earth Summit in 1992 and at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002. On the other hand, developed countries have suggested that the focus should be on how the role of public and private sector actions has evolved over the past 20 years. Developing countries’ references to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities throughout the draft text was met by developed countries with frequent requests for not singling out individual principles, prompting one observer to note that the Rio Principles have generated debate ever since they were adopted. In such an atmosphere, as a policy expert from the global South commented, there is a prospect that nothing will be achieved and that the conference could “end in acrimony.” Now that the wheels have been set in motion, however, some suggested that there is also the policy space to create real alternatives to the current impasse.


Many of the issues related to the UNCSD’s two themes were at the core of interventions from many delegations, albeit with very different emphases. Developed countries have promoted the possibility of a green economy in which externalities are factored into choices about how to produce and what to consume. The “Green Economy in the Context of Poverty Eradication and Sustainable Development” agenda item has been the focus of many recent environmental policy discussions, including at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum’s meeting in Nairobi in February. While questions remain, discussions have pointed towards the need for a better basis for planning and implementing of sustainable development aims: bringing science and the policy making process closer together; sharing knowledge across borders; and developing “beyond GDP” indicators that can encapsulate both costs and benefits to human well-being. At the March informal informals, however, developing countries resisted mention of a green economy “roadmap” in the text and expressed concern that this could become a pretext for aid and trade conditionality. Poverty eradication, they argued, not the greenness of the economy, jobs, or technology, must be at the core of sustainable development.

Some have defined the discussions on the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD), the other theme of Rio+20, as the biggest challenge facing the Conference, with many emphasizing that elements under this agenda item are among those issues that “will keep us up the last night in Rio.” While dissatisfaction with the Commission on Sustainable Development is widespread, the proposed alternatives have not generated a clear favorite. Observers note that proposals for a strengthened ECOSOC or creating a sustainable development council (SDC) both have potential strengths and pitfalls. Strengthening ECOSOC might be easier to do organizationally, but its broad agenda and its limited headway in promoting sustainable development coordination, despite past agreements to this effect, has limited the enthusiasm for this option. Meanwhile, the prospect of an SDC raises concern over the budgetary implications among some delegations. Many non-governmental organization representatives at the March meeting favored an SDC as potentially offering more space for participation, than would be possible under the current arrangements with ECOSOC. Some, however, privately question whether a council would be simply a cosmetic name change or garner real transformation in addressing sustainable development priorities-with the latter relying more on political will rather than institutional organization. Discussion of alternatives related to UNEP remains for another round of talks.

Some suggested that the success of another possible outcome from Rio+20-on the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs)-may rest on decisions regarding the IFSD. The SDGs proposal, originally advanced by Colombia and Guatemala, has garnered support from developed and developing countries, as well as the report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. Observers have highlighted that such goals would be universally applied, unlike the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which primarily apply to poorer nations. Supporters emphasize that the SDGs will need to build on successful aspects of the MDGs. However, the challenges will be numerous as negotiators attempt to define a consensus text on a process for developing the goals. Privately, some delegates noted procedural concerns about potential overlap with and the relationship to the MDGs, which this meeting does not have a mandate to address. Nevertheless, developing countries agreed to explore a process for consideration of SDGs, opening the possibility that delegates at Rio might have SDGs to point to as the outcome, although some mentioned that this “is another one of those issues that will go into the wee hours of the morning in Rio.”

Another proposed outcome, a “compendium of commitments” database, according to its supporters, could offer both public and private actors the opportunity to register their own sustainable development commitments. Proponents say it offers the possibility of more meaningful actions by a range of actors, and can be monitored. Some note similarities with the registry of actions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some pointed to other precedents. For example, the “Every Woman, Every Child” initiative housed in the office of the Secretary-General maintains a registry of commitments on health and development, while the International Labor Organization has an online database on labor standards monitoring. Others highlighted that something similar has been planned in text related to the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production in the form of a listing of initiatives undertaken not only by states and UN bodies, but also by other actors, whether other intergovernmental organizations, private sector or civil society.

Developing countries bracketed the compendium on commitments proposal due to concerns that developed countries could use this approach to evade meeting sustainable development commitments reached over the past 20 years, diluting responsibility through the dispersal of actions among public and private stakeholders. Others considered the compendium to be a promising approach, well suited to the “web 2.0″ nature of the world today. Yet still others expressed the view that, while some targets may be met through the goodwill of the private sector, governments have a responsibility to make sustainable choices more possible through changes in regulatory frameworks, so that the correct price and other signals are given.


Everyone has called for new ideas, but, as one stakeholder asked, “How do you get new ideas into an antiquated political system?” This chicken-and-egg situation could persist indefinitely, if governments do not take strong action in the coming two and a half months. In the context of discussion about commonly defined goals for sustainable development – in other words, SDGs – one delegate from a developing country highlighted the need to return to first principles on why the UN is needed: common planetary problems can only be solved collectively, and Rio offers a chance for common agenda setting and prioritization. One stakeholder expressed the view that “the real action is in the country capitals,” where state and non-state actors are now in full preparation mode, suggesting that this second Rio process, in the end, may be the little wheel that makes the bigger intergovernmental wheels turn. The energy in the corridors during the March meeting, not to mention the extraordinary number of events that multiple actors are organizing around the Rio+20 event, demonstrate that this meeting does have “convening” power, and will indirectly send ripples through the sustainable development policy community. The member states of the UN have the opportunity, through their outcome document, to set the course for that little wheel.

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