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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2013

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Commentary: Building on Rio+20 To Spur Action for Sustainable Development

For 40 years the world has been struggling to come to terms with the growing need to protect the our environment and the natural systems that support all life. During that time, the focus has gradually shifted from specific and local environmental problems and challenges to a holistic appreciation of the need to attend to the operation of planetary processes and geosystems on a global basis and the way in which the totality of human activities affects them. This requires attention to the whole global economy and the way in which it could operate more sustainably.

Several United Nations Conferences have been milestones on this journey of transition toward a more sustainable global economy, and there will no doubt need to be more before the journey is complete. The Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (“Rio+20”), was the latest step in this long march and has launched a number of important new initiatives that need to be brought to fruition in the years ahead.

Basic Earth Systems and the Growing Urgency of Global-Level Action To Protect Them

Scientific understanding of the way in which the whole earth and its biosphere operate as a single integrated system has increased by leaps and bounds over the past 50 years. We have learned how the physical, chemical, geological, and biological systems and cycles interact together, and how they have held the earth and its biosphere in fairly stable equilibrium over many thousands of years.

As this geo-scientific knowledge has increased, it has also become clearer that this long-standing equilibrium is under threat. Biodiversity and natural resources are being lost at an alarming rate, and sometimes irreversibly. Pollution and land degradation are spreading. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already changing the climate in many parts of the world and is likely to have larger impacts in the years ahead.

There are now serious risks that these perturbations could tip the planet into a period of rapid and possibly catastrophic change, leading to a much more hostile environment for many species, including humankind.

We have also learned more over the 50 years about how human activities affect the operation of the integrated geo-system. Human activity has grown to such an extent that it has become the dominant influence on the current evolution of the earth and all its systems. Scientists now talk of the planet entering a new era, “the Anthropocene era,” recognizing the extent of this influence and how it is already changing the patterns of geological and natural evolution that are taking place around us as compared with previous eras.1

In particular, it has now become very clear that it is the activity of human beings themselves that is the fundamental cause of the current perturbations in global systems. The economic activity of humans is spreading pollution and degradation of land and water resources. It is human exploitation of fossil fuels that is leading to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to climate change.2 It is human pressures on finite land resources that is reducing the space for other habitats and leading to loss of biodiversity.3

The steady increase in the global population of humans is exacerbating these problems by placing ever greater burdens on the carrying capacity of the planet.

At the same time, the almost universal desire for improved material standards of living both in both developing and in developed countries and the pursuit of this objective through traditional models of economic growth add additional pressures. But achievement of this higher standard of living will likely become harder to achieve even for present generations, as finite resources such as fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive to extract. In short, the sum total of all human activity is compromising the future of the planet – and indeed of future generations of humanity itself. We are living in an unsustainable way. The prospects for 2050 on present trends and policies are already looking severe, and the prospects for future generations could be very much worse unless all countries of the world manage to make the transition to a more sustainable way of life and a more sustainable global economy much more rapidly than they are doing at present.

A More Sustainable World

A classical and compelling vision of a more sustainable world was set out by the Brundtland Commission in 1989.4 Its definition of the goal of sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without prejudicing those of future generations” remains as relevant and as necessary as ever. The commission envisioned a more sustainable world in which a more stable human population manages to live in a more harmonious relationship with nature, avoiding pollution and degradation of land and water, and acting as steward of the natural world and all its resources.

It is easy to garner support for a general vision of sustainability. Many politicians and members of the public will gladly subscribe to sustainable development as a general high-level objective—and one that is clearly superior to the world that might emerge from unchecked climate change, severe loss of biodiversity, or other environmental catastrophes.

But making sustainable development operationally effective, especially when it conflicts with short-term political objectives and imperatives, is quite another matter. Translating the sustainability vision into a different model for the operation of a national economy or into a different way of life for individuals and families, and then building popular and political will to make those transformational changes, is much harder. It is so hard that in spite of 40 years of analysis and elaboration of the details, and the devoted efforts of many thousands or even millions of people and organizations around the world, it is still far from being implemented in practice on a sufficiently comprehensive basis to make the transition to a more sustainable world a reality.

There are of course some examples of good sustainability practices—in a few countries, in some policy areas or sectors of the economy, in a number of cities around the world, in some progressive businesses, and among some enlightened households. Some parts of the environment have been improved—in some places—to some extent.

But the sum total of all these good examples is not yet on a sufficient scale to achieve significant progress toward overall sustainability. A more rapid transformation of the economy toward sustainable development will require a much more determined effort by all parts of society. In particular, economic and finance ministries, business leaders, and others who hold positions of power and influence in the global economy need to make sustainability a central focus. Economists tend to focus on the money economy, and sometimes on the so called “real” economy of production and consumption, but most are still far from focusing on the real planet and the way in which the “real” economy affects it.

Governments will need to regulate standards more vigorously in a more sustainable direction and provide appropriate fiscal incentives, both for businesses and for individuals and households, to operate more sustainably. Sustainability needs to be made central to economic policies, energy policies, transport policies, construction policies, and education policies.

We need to focus investments on making businesses and households more sustainable. We must use energy and other resources more efficiently and prioritize renewable resources of energy and other materials over nonrenewable resources. We need to ensure products have longer life spans and are recycled rather than discarded, and we need to properly value and protect ecosystem services.

These prescriptions are familiar, but their rate of adoption still lags behind. True sustainability will require a much larger commitment of public and private sector monies into transformational solutions, and a much larger commitment by leaders and by all parts of society to making the necessary changes in production and consumption patterns and in lifestyles.

At the beginning of the current economic crisis there was a good attempt in some countries to include substantial green elements in the various stimulus or recovery packages that were promoted. But as the crisis has worn on, that element appears to have dwindled. In many countries, the politicians, the media, and the public are too preoccupied with the crisis, with job losses, and with the supposed need to restore economic growth as the basis of recovery to have much time or willingness to address environmental or sustainability concerns as seriously or as urgently as is now needed. The few countries that are still paying some attention to the green agenda seem to be fearful that moving ahead by themselves might undermine their competitive position in the world.

So far, the idea that growing damage to the environment and depletion of natural resources are actually part of the current economic crisis does not seem to have gained widespread traction or acceptance.5 Nor is it yet widely accepted that no future economic recovery will be able to be sustained for long if environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources continue unchecked. The negative externalities associated with pollution or environmental degradation are for the most part not yet adequately integrated into the world's economic structures by appropriate fiscal or charging systems, so these problems continue to escalate unchecked. And national policies still take inadequate account of the continuing depletion of the natural capital resources of the planet. So there is still a long way to go to integrate a proper understanding of sustainable development into the basic mind set and models of economists, finance ministers, and leaders of industry.

The social aspects of sustainable development also need much greater attention and incorporation in public policies. In a world that must face up to finite limits on the availability of resources, the case for greater equity in the allocation or distribution of resources becomes much stronger.

If world populations continue to rise toward unsustainable levels, governments might even need to reconsider demographic or population policies, difficult though that subject is. Or as growth in world population more gradually levels off, much more attention will need to be paid to the increasing proportions of older people in the world and to how to shape a good balance of mutual responsibility and respect between young and old. Migration policies are also likely to become increasingly critical.

The Key Role of the United Nations

The unsustainability of humanity's present way of life manifests itself most clearly at the global level. It is by looking at the global aggregates of activity and their impact on the planet as a whole that we can see most easily why we need to change.

This does not mean that all activity has to be organized at global level; on the contrary much of what needs to be done can best be handled at the national, local, or sectoral level. That is the point of the much-quoted slogan “Think global—act local.”

Nevertheless, some action does need to be taken or coordinated by larger groupings of countries or at global level. This is obviously appropriate in the case of an issue like climate change, which is an essentially indivisible problem about the working of the global atmosphere as a whole. But in a world whose economy is increasingly globalized, it is also becoming essential to find common solutions to other economic and sustainability issues, so that the effectiveness of good policies in one country is not undermined by subpar practices elsewhere. It is not feasible for one country by itself to achieve a wholly sustainable future without corresponding change in other countries.

Where international action is required, it is natural to look to the United Nations as the key global forum to coordinate the necessary action. The United Nations has the unique convening power to bring all countries together to address an issue. It has the specialized agencies, expertise, and resources to assemble relevant data and analysis. It has an unrivalled capacity to synthesize information and create knowledge and understanding of the planet's geosystems as a whole and their interactions with the global economy. It has the status and authority to initiate negotiations toward establishing norms and binding rules. And at its best it has the legitimacy and vision to inspire collective action on a broad front around the world.

The United Nations was founded in the hope of promoting international peace and co-operation and avoiding the conflict and devastation of war; and the work of the Security Council has been at the center of its mission. Increasingly, the world now needs to give equal attention to the task of promoting the sustainability of the planet and avoiding the devastation that could arise from uncontrolled depletion of the earth's natural resources and unchecked growth of pollution. And we need a mandate and structures within the United Nations system fit to undertake that task effectively.

Of course the United Nations has problems. It is, after all, no more than an assembly of the governments of the world and it can only achieve results when all or most of those countries agree to act together. It can easily be prevented from effective action by lack of trust and common vision amongst its members. It has particular difficulty in agreeing action on what are seen as longer term objectives, such as sustainable development, when these are believed by some members to be against their shorter term needs or political interests.

Waiting for consensus to emerge in the United Nations can be a frustrating process, and of course it is right that many other channels and groupings should be and are being used to advance sustainable development—regional groupings, coalitions of the willing, public–private partnerships, enlightened business groupings, and so on. But ultimately it is only the United Nations that has the scope and authority to guide the overall progress toward sustainable development and to oversee its scaling up from the many good national, local, and sectoral initiatives to the transformative global scale that the situation requires. No-one should ever be tempted to give up on the United Nations.

Achievements of the United Nations on Sustainable Development

Fortunately, it is indeed at the United Nations that the countries of the world have developed their best thinking and strategies about sustainable development over the past 40 years.

Progress on sustainable development policymaking has been marked by a succession of major United Nations overview conferences at 5- or 10-year intervals, including in particular:

• The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972.

• The first great Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

• The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.

• Most recently, the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012.

Stockholm: Only One Earth

The first major United Nations contribution to the advancement of sustainability was the Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Recognizing the integrity and the fragility of the planet (vividly described for the conference in the report “Only One Earth”), the conference established a basic framework and principles for the management of the world environment and development that remain relevant to this day.

Stockholm also led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Nairobi. UNEP has done a great deal over the past 40 years to deepen understanding of the environmental issues and problems facing the world particularly in its regular series of global assessments6 and to help develop international treaties, policies, and other initiatives to resolve particular issues. The Stockholm conference also established for the first time the crucial link between the environment and development. In a famous speech to the conference, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi emphasized the need to maintain a strong link between ecological management and poverty alleviation, and the developing countries pressed hard for strong language on the importance of development to be included in the text.

This linkage has remained a constant theme in United Nations discussions of sustainability issues from 1972 onward. The developing countries have insisted that the alleviation of poverty must remain their top priority and the priority of development assistance efforts, and that protection of the environment must be handled in a way that is supportive of that priority. Conversely, environmentalists, particularly from the more developed countries, have argued that protecting the world's environment and natural resources is an essential part of safeguarding the long-term interests of everyone, in both the developing and the developed world. These complementary objectives have remained at the center of the sustainable development vision ever since. This framing of the debate has had some useful results in influencing development programmes in the developing world to take more account of the environment. But it has been unhelpful insofar as it has tended to freeze the debate in an old-fashioned North-South stand-off and inhibited fruitful collaboration in a common quest to find a path to a more sustainable global economy.

From Stockholm to Rio

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a surge of public concern and political pressure about the state of the global environment throughout the world, particularly strongly felt in the developed countries but to a more limited extent in other parts of the world as well. In the scientific sphere, researchers were developing a new understanding of how the world operates as a single integrated system or biosphere in which human activities have an increasingly dominant influence. At the same time, in the political sphere, popular concern about damage to the environment was mounting and being expressed through powerful, globally networked nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and new political formations embracing the Green cause. Governments of all political colors found it necessary to respond to these growing concerns and to adopt stronger policies to protect the environment. And there was growing pressure to tackle the biggest issues of all, such as climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The Montreal Protocol: Tackling the Hole in the Ozone Layer

In 1987 there was one conspicuous success for international action on a global environmental problem—the adoption of the Montreal Protocol to phase out the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances so as to enable the ozone layer to recover and continue its vital role in protecting the earth's surface from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation from space. In 1990 a conference in London agreed on a further amendment to establish a multilateral fund to assist developing countries in playing their part in phasing out the ozone-depleting substances.

This hard-won agreement contained several crucial elements:

• Good scientific analysis conclusively linking the harmful CFCs with the growing hole in the ozone layer

• A tight but realistic timetable for phasing out the harmful substances

• A complementary strategy by industry to identify and develop substitute substances for the key applications that CFCs and other substances had previously been used for

• Developed countries to phase out the substances first, giving the developing countries longer to make the necessary adjustments

Establishment of a dedicated global fund to help developing countries phase out the ozone-depleting substances in due course. These elements worked well, enabling the Montreal Protocol to achieve near universal support and beginning to return the globe ozone layer toward its pre-depletion state. They continue to serve as a useful model for other international agreements on environmental problems.

The Earth Summit at Rio 1992: From Principles to Binding Treaties

The success of the international agreement on the ozone layer was one factor emboldening countries to work toward similar comprehensive global agreements to tackle climate change—and to draw all this activity together in one comprehensive global program of action to establish a more sustainable pattern of development for the future. These large ambitions took shape in the negotiations leading up the first great Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

At that summit, the hard-won Rio principles strengthened the Stockholm Principles and gave shape and purpose to the sustainability concept. Agenda 21 showed how sustainable development needed to be applied to permeate all aspects of national and international activity. And the two great framework conventions on climate change and on biodiversity showed how, working together through the United Nations, the countries of the world could unite to create a universal framework for action on two of the major problems of the global environment.

As in the Montreal negotiations, there was also the underlying idea of a global deal. It was recognized that developed countries had caused and were still causing most of the major global environmental problems through pollution and overconsumption—and in principle had more capacity to deal with the problems through pioneering leaner, cleaner modes of production and consumption. Therefore, they should move first and should help developing countries manage their own development in more sustainable ways from the outset. For developing countries, development and the eradication of poverty remained their top priorities, but they needed to be willing to contemplate trying to manage this in a more sustainable way, provided that resources and technological support were made available.

A new Global Environmental Facility (GEF) for this purpose was established in 1991. The GEF unites 182 countries in partnership with international institutions, civil society organizations, and the private sector to address global environmental issues while supporting national sustainable development initiatives. Today the GEF is the largest public funder of projects to improve the global environment. Since 1991, the GEF has provided $10.5 billion in grants and leveraged $51 billion in co-financing for more than 2,700 projects in some 165 countries.

The GEF has generated significant resources for worthwhile projects, but its total contribution still falls a far short of what is needed to bring about a transformation of the global economy—particularly when the figures are compared with the much larger sums still going toward unsustainable activities and investments. For example, in the field of energy, although there has been significant recent growth in low-carbon sources of energy, fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix, supported by subsidies that amounted to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% over 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables.7

The Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development: Engaging Many Actors in Partnerships

Rio 1992 established a process for review of progress and further negotiations for action under the Climate Change and Biodiversity Conventions – the regular meetings of the Conferences of the Parties. It also established the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) whose annual meetings in New York were intended to enable governments to maintain a systematic overview of progress across the board on sustainable development. The CSD did some useful work in reviewing particular topic areas during the 1990s, particularly after its program of work was rationalized at the Rio + 5 Conference in 1997. But it lacked the standing and the authority to keep sustainable development alive as a truly transformative process for managing the global economy toward a more sustainable mode of operation.8

The Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, therefore, attempted to build renewed political momentum in support of sustainable development and a more practical program for implementing the principles and agreements.

A special feature of that summit was the effort made to reach beyond governments and to engage business, local government, and other civil society actors of all kinds in a Joint Programme of Implementation. For the first time, negotiated outcome documents were not the sole formal product of the summit. The summit also launched more than 300 voluntary partnerships with public and private actors, each of which was intended to bring additional resources to support efforts to implement sustainable development.

Toward a New Summit on Sustainable Development

The Johannesburg Summit renewed the mandate of the CSD to keep progress on sustainability under review at its annual meetings in New York. Once again, this started well, but as the years went by, interest in the CSD and its effectiveness again began to ebb away.

By 2010 there was a widespread feeling in United Nations circles that the CSD had run its course and that a new effort at the international level was needed to revive the impetus for sustainable development. In particular, it was gradually becoming apparent that sustainable development needed to establish stronger connections with the world of economic governance and major investment flows, and it needed stronger governance within the United Nations system operating at a higher level than the CSD and drawing in economics ministers, leaders of industry, and other key decision makers.9 Similarly, UNEP needed greater scope and resources to fulfil its mission better within the United Nations system.10

In 2010 the General Assembly agreed accordingly to convene a new Summit on sustainable development to be held in Rio in 2012 20 years after the first Rio Earth Summit with two principal themes:

• Better articulation of the green economy and identification of the means to advance it

• Stronger global governance for sustainable development

During the preparatory period 2010-2012, a great deal of analytical material on these two topics was prepared by UNEP, OECD, and other agencies, countries, and commentators. This work has clarified the kind of changes that need to be made in moving toward a greener and more sustainable global economy. The subsequent negotiations covered a lot of ground and identified many key aspects of the global economy on which transformative action toward sustainability is needed.

Unfortunately, it was not possible in the time available at Rio+20 to reach full agreement on an operational framework for the shift to a greener economy. There is still suspicion in some parts of the developing world that this concept is the cover for a form of green protectionism that would harm their trading interests. Moreover, at political level, the period 2010–2012 proved to be a difficult time to gain the attention of the world's leaders and opinion formers for sustainable development issues. Many of the leaders were too preoccupied with the economic and financial crisis and with conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world to give much attention to the preparations for Rio 2012. And NGOs and other actors found it difficult to generate the same groundswell of public opinion and political pressure that had fuelled the first Rio Summit in 1992. At a country level, the 2012 negotiations underlined the key role now being played in the debate by emerging economies such as China, Brazil, and South Korea and a significant diminution or dilution of the influence of former leaders in the debate, including the United States and Europe. The United Nations has not yet learned, however, how to adjust its negotiating strategies and rhythms to this changing balance. The old dialogue between Europe with developed country partners on the one hand and a more or less united G77 on the other no longer corresponds very well to the interests of all parties, and new combinations and negotiating practices are taking time to emerge.

For all these reasons the formal outcome of Rio+20 came to less precise conclusions than it could and should have done. On a number of the key issues the negotiators had to be content with launching new processes and initiatives rather than bringing them to final conclusions.

Nevertheless, the conference did produce a substantial outcome document, “The Future We Want.” In this document, the 192 governments in attendance once again renewed their political commitment to sustainable development and the promotion of a more sustainable future.

Significant new commitments included:

• The launch of a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and converge with the post-2015 development agenda

• The launch of a program of work in the area of measures of progress to complement gross domestic product in order to better inform policy decisions

• New guidelines on green economy policies

• Adoption of a 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production patterns

• An ongoing process to promote sustainability reporting by companies

• The launch of a process to prepare options on a strategy for sustainable development financing

• Establishment of a new higher-level political forum for sustainable development in the United Nations to replace the CSD

• Strengthening of UNEP

The conference also took forward-looking decisions on a number of thematic areas, including energy, food security, oceans, and cities, and decided to convene a Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in 2014.

The Rio+20 Conference also galvanized the attention of thousands of representatives of the United Nations system and major groups. It resulted in more than 700 voluntary commitments and witnessed the formation of new partnerships to advance sustainable development.

Universal Sustainable Development Goals to Complement and Broaden MDGs

One of the most significant outcomes of the summit is the decision to establish a new set of universally sustainable development goals for the world. The MDGs that were established by the Millennium Summit in 2000 have played a valuable part over the last decade in focusing the efforts of the development community on a set of specific and concrete goals for reducing poverty, relieving hunger, and providing access to fresh water, among other actions. By focusing on this limited set of specific goals, the MDGs have enabled better use of available resources, and significant progress on the eradication of poverty in several developing countries, while avoiding the diffuseness and incoherence of some earlier development efforts.

Looking forward, there is a general desire to maintain the advantages of this focused approach in the next period of effort after 2015. At the same time, however, the Rio+20 outcome shows that there is a general desire to broaden the approach so that efforts focus on promoting sustainable development (i.e., development taking account of impacts on the environment and the needs of future generations, as well as the present) and on what needs to be done in every country of the world (not just the developing countries) to make their economies operate more sustainably. That is the purpose of the new Sustainable Development Goals that the summit has called for.

New Measures of Progress Beyond GDP

The 2012 summit also called for new yardsticks of progress from the United Nations Statistical Commission. Ultimately, moving beyond gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress should help to dethrone GDP from its central place as the key economic objective.

This is a key target for sustainable development because GDP does not measure the right factors to give us a true picture of the well-being of society and its progress toward sustainability. So we needs a better means of assessing and measuring what constitutes the true well-being of a society that can then be used to set more desirable goals for the management of national economies and the global economy. Finance and economics ministers are perhaps more in need of this new set of measures than anyone, so that they can recalibrate their goals and objectives toward the advancement of true well-being.

Although the conference did not reach substantial agreement on how national economies should be progressively transformed in a greener or more sustainable direction the creation of sustainable development goals and of new measures of well-being should in due course be powerful pointers in the right direction. And the guidelines for a green economy and the new program of work on sustainable production and consumption that were agreed to give a helpful push toward the kind of fiscal and economic policies that will be needed.

Finance and Economics Departments Cautiously Stepping Up to the Plate

As the thinking about the crucial elements of a greener, more sustainable economy gradually mature, there appears also to be a gradual broadening of participation in the debate from the environmentalists and environment departments who dominated the debate about sustainability years ago. Economists and finance and economics ministries are gradually taking more of an interest. The Stern report on the economics of climate change reinforced this shift partly because of its intellectual quality but equally importantly because its author was a leading economist from the UK Treasury carrying access and influence with the World Bank and world economic leaders.

Taking this evolution further, one of the preparations for the Rio+20 summit was a meeting of leading finance ministers, and they will no doubt be much involved in the development of the new strategy for financing sustainable development that was agreed upon at the meeting. The guidelines for greening the economies of the world are also strongly oriented in their direction. Although progress may be slower in these circles, it has the potential to be more solidly based because finance and economics ministers have more of the levers of real influence for change in their hands.

If this shift is to deliver its full potential it will need to be reflected at national level. Many of the sustainable development strategies developed over the past 20 years since the first Rio Earth Summit have been created and led by departments of the environment and have focused primarily on the environmental dimension of sustainable development. As the economic and social aspects of sustainable development come into sharper focus, it is becoming clearer that this is no longer an adequate approach to sustainable development and that sustainable development will need to be led in a more integrated way from the center of governments with the full involvement of economics and finance ministers, those responsible for social policies, and environment departments. The involvement of a wider range of leaders should also be reflected in the composition and working of the new United Nations high-level process to be established to replace the CSD. This forum could and should be conceived as an opportunity for heads of government supported by economics and finance ministers, as well as environment ministers, to keep the progress of sustainable development under active review.

In parallel with this new forum, the conference also decided to strengthen UNEP by giving it universal membership and an enlarged mandate. Some would have liked to go further and give UNEP the status of a United Nations agency, but even without this the changes agreed upon, the shift represent a significant strengthening of its capacity to monitor changes in the global environment, to build strategies and policies to help guide the world to a more sustainable future, and to develop its work on the greening of the global economy.

The laboriously negotiated words of the outcome document are by no means the whole outcome from the summit. Rio+20 was not just one intergovernmental negotiation leading to one set of conclusions. It was a whole collection of parallel discussions among countries and many other actors such as business and trade unions, parliamentarians, local and regional governments, the scientific and educational communities, and NGOs of all shapes and sizes. These groups are not active just as lobbyists of governments, but as major players in their own right, meeting together in their own events and reaching conclusions on their own way forward to sustainability.

Thus, some 800 business leaders from around the world meeting separately under the auspices of business and sustainable development committed themselves to further action to strengthen their own sustainability strategies and actions and to improve corporate accountability and reporting on these issues. Just as governments need to bring sustainability to the heart of their economic and financial polices, so businesses and the financial community will increasingly need to bring sustainability much closer to the heart of their corporate goals and strategies.

The 3,000 parliamentarians of the world meeting separately in Rio under the auspices of GLOBE agreed on a Legislators Protocol and plan to enhance the role of parliaments throughout the world in holding their governments to account for the progress of sustainable development in their countries.

One thousand four hundred local government representatives meeting separately in Rio reinvigorated their “strategy of supporting cities on the pathway to becoming resilient, resource-efficient, biodiverse and low-carbon, to turn their urban economy green and build smart infrastructure, with the ultimate goal of ensuring a healthy and happy community.”

Scientists meeting in Rio under the auspices of the International Council for Science (ICSU) launched a new 10-year international research initiative (Future Earth) that will develop the knowledge for responding effectively to the risks and opportunities of global environmental change and for supporting transformation toward global sustainability in the coming decades. Future Earth will mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policymakers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20.

Meanwhile, higher education institutions from around the world committed themselves to a new initiative to embed sustainable development more centrally in their practices and teaching.

Considerable energy and enthusiasm was built up in these parallel processes and has been taken home to many parts of the world. One test of the Rio legacy will be how to maintain this energy and commitment in the years ahead.

All of these initiatives by the United Nations and others will require intensive analysis and follow-up negotiation in the years ahead both at the United Nations in New York and elsewhere. The year 2013 will be crucial for getting many of these new initiatives on the road. And 2015 is seen by many as being the next major opportunity in the United Nations to take stock of the overall situation to launch an updated set of MDGs geared specifically toward development and to link them coherently to the new universal, more broadly based sustainable development goals.


No one could describe Rio+20 as a resounding success in itself. But it would be quite wrong to write it off as a total failure, or still more drastically to use its modest results to query the very goal of sustainable development and the crucial role of the United Nations in advancing it. Achieving a more sustainable global economy remains a crucial objective, and the United Nations will always be one of the key arenas for advancing this cause. Viewed from a 40 year perspective, Rio+20 can be seen as another modest but significant step in the process of greening the global economy and mainstreaming sustainable development into the responsibilities of those institutions and leaders principally responsible for the management of the global economy.

The task now for everyone concerned is to engage vigorously with the follow-up actions at local, sectoral, and national levels and with the follow-up negotiations at the international level to ensure that the initiatives started at Rio bear fruit in 2013 and beyond. The challenge of sustainability is more urgent than ever, and new possibilities for carrying the battle forward are constantly emerging both in the United Nations and in many countries around the world.

1. P. J. Crutzen, E. F. Stoermer, “The ‘Anthropocene’.” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.

2. IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report (2007).

3. Convention on Biodiversity, Global Biodiversity Outlook (2010).

4. “Our Common Future” (1989).

5. The Stiglitz Report—Reforming the International Monetary and Financial Systems in the Wake of the Global Crisis (2010).

6. Global Environment Outlook 1,2 3 etc.

7. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook (2012).

8. F. Dodds, M. Strauss, M. Strong, Only One Earth—The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development.

9. J.G. Strandenaes, Sustainable Development Governance towards Rio+20. Framing the Debate (2012).

10. A. Steiner, The Sustainable Transition. Overcoming the Crises From Rio to Rio and Beyond (2012). The Economics of Climate Change. Nicholas Stern. 2006.

Derek Osborn is President of the Stakeholder Forum for Our Common Future, an international NGO that supports and facilitates the engagement of civil society with UN processes about sustainable development and the environment. He has held numerous other posts and appointments concerned with sustainable development in the public, private, and voluntary sectors over the past 25 years, some at the UN and in Europe, and some in the United Kingdom where he lives.

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