The Road to Rio+20

by Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler

In less than a month Rio+20 will begin. Government delegations from nearly every country in the world will arrive in the RioCentro put on their translation headsets and try to find common ground on the future of humankind’s place in the environment. Thousands of people will flood the streets for the People’s Summit – which promises to foster an alternative, bottom-up vision of sustainable development – and a myriad other meetings that will take place alongside the main event. A village erected in the city will host a caucus of indigenous peoples flying in from around the world. Business and civil society groups – from multinational corporations to mom-and-pop NGOs – will jockey to make their voices heard. Young people will tweet, blog, and lobby. Some will likely be thrown out of the official negotiations for making more ruckus than the government ministers can handle. Thousands and thousands of people will descend upon Rio de Janeiro to negotiate, exchange ideas, discuss in back rooms, document, criticize, promote, and scream for and against sustainable development.

A lot of what will be said won’t be understood. Even by the people like myself in Rio. Even by the people who are doing the talking. A lot of what will be said will amount to nothing. At this type of UN conference, acceptance of the final outcome document is by consensus – that means every country, all 190 some of them, has to eventually agree on every part in order for it to go into effect. And even then this is international soft law, which means that how much is enforced is determined by each individual country and the pressure put on them by the international community. No wars will be fought and no one will be arrested if a nation doesn’t live up to their promise on renewable energy.

But as a rule of thumb in international affairs: most international law is followed most of the time. The Millennium Development Goals are international soft law and their creation has set concrete targets for improving people’s lives –like reducing by half the number of people without access to sanitation – and have set the rules for the allocation of billions of dollars. And many of the Goals, which expire in 2015, will be met. But because the negotiations at Rio+20 are grappling with this kind of international law – and because sustainable development means a lot of things to a lot of people –much of the arguments in the official negotiations will be about really obscure language and may sound vague even after being interpreted by reporters in the world’s newspapers. A little background on the history of the negotiations that have led up to Rio+20, and on the evolution of the idea of sustainable development, are necessary to understand how the outcome of the next weeks will shape our world over the coming decades.

Environmental and developmental concerns are likely as old as the human conceptions of “environment” and “progress”. But in the 60’s after WWII mass production patterns had been applied to peacetime consumption and the population exploded worldwide – including in countries that were nowhere near equipped to handle millions of new souls – people in nations around the world began to realize this time this was different: humanity was pressing down upon the world with a heaviness never before seen, and not just in one place but everywhere. Several important papers, including The Limits of Growth, were published on the topic. And in 1972, The United Nations Conference on the Environment was convened in Stockholm.

That meeting was the first time nations from every corner of the world came together to talk about how best to develop socially and economically in order to benefit their people and what that meant in the context of the environment. And it was there that developed countries and developing countries first hashed out one of the central themes of the sustainable development debate that holds to this day: developed countries’ concern is with overshooting the earth’s carrying capacity (including through the impact of overpopulation and shoddy industry in developing countries) and developing countries’ concerns are with neo-colonialism (including worries about developed countries overexploiting and over-polluting and stunting the developing world’s growth in the name of sustainable development).

Fifteen years later the United Nations tasked a special commission with reviewing the state of development and environment. The final result of the commission, known as the Brundlandt Report after the its chairman, provides the most commonly cited definition of sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. It also added a social element to its conception. A nation needs not just to protect its environment and provide materially for its people to be sustainable but it also must enable them to have a say in their society and control their own destiny. A dictatorship does not beget sustainability. Thus the Brundtland Report laid out the three pillars on which sustainable development rests: economic, environmental and social, each of which sometimes threatens to overcome the others but all of which must be respected and taken into account. The Report, published in 1987, also paved the way for the Earth Summit to take place in 1992– the biggest summit yet on sustainable development and a one of a kind conference in history.

Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the host city for the summit. At that point the city was much less prosperous and secure than it is today. A Brazilian man I met here said they had tanks patrolling the streets as a precautionary measure and that all the organized crime headed south out of the city for the conference. It was supposed to be big deal – all the world’s nations coming together to produce a joint statement about the relationship of civilization to the environment – but none of the delegations could really have predicted the direction it would take. One delegate suggested at the outset that the result should be a document every child should be able to understand and hang over their bed. The debate quickly became more complex than that, thanks largely to a strong and unified negotiating block of developing countries – the G-77 – which refused to let their concerns be pushed aside. The negotiating document grew from a symbolic declaration about the importance of the environment to human society to include complex and important issues of equity and responsibility between and within states. As a developing country representative said at one point, “our kids won’t have a bed over which to hang a poetic Earth charter if we don’t eradicate poverty also.” The debates went long into the nights and the questions raised were at least as important as the outcomes. Are environmental concerns just a disguise for a new trade barriers? Is there a “right to development,” and if so, what are the constraints on it? Does sustainable development require a fundamental restructuring of global North-South relations?

The results of the Summit included the creation of three new UN commissions, each of which has brought together the worlds’ governments to discuss rights and responsibilities every year since 1992. These are the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which created the Kyoto Protocol and has held most of the intergovernmental debates about climate change and man’s role in it). In addition it produced two documents: The Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. The former consists of 27 principles, all of which seem matter of fact and universally agreeable at first glance but in fact were the result of furious negotiation. An example is Principle 8, “To achieve sustainable development and achieve a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.” Developed countries wanted to include something about the need to put a check on uncontrolled population growth, which they worried was getting out of hand in Africa and Asia. Developing countries, though, were adamant that the blame for depletion of the world’s resources should fall not on the masses of poor people in their own countries but on the overproduction and overconsumption – the cars, the malls, the clothes – of the developed world, which did and still does use up a far greater share of water, trees, and oil than is sustainable. Some developed countries vehemently resisted the idea that they might have to change their living patterns. As the first President Bush said at the time, “The American way of life is not up for debate.” In the end both sides agreed to both make one principle that would include both proposals. The final result reflected this series of compromises. According to one ambassador, Tommy Koh,“form a very delicate balance as a package deal, and any attempt to amend any part of the declaration could unravel the whole package.”

The first time I stumbled across the Agenda 21 – before I’d even heard of sustainable development – it was in a book about a New World Order that was being secretly schemed and would soon bring about a world government similar to the Illuminati or the Freemasons dominating national authorities and usurping sovereignty at all levels. It kept referring to an insidious plan, apparently dreamed in a back-room, called Agenda 21, and it was chock full of details about how the take-over would take place. To be fair to the conspiracy theorists, Agenda 21 is 700 pages long and sounds like it could be a Soviet directive. The delegates could have picked a better name. But its focus was on strengthening international cooperation for the purposes of combating deforestation and desertification, conserving biological diversity, and protecting and managing the oceans. And again its implementation is voluntary and depends on each country enforcing it within its own borders.

The Earth Summit, also known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), brought together more heads of state and government, diplomats, and UN representatives than any other conference before it. It also brought together a diverse and vibrant set of civil society and NGO groups to talk about sustainable development issues – and all this in age before internet and cell phones. I talked to a woman, Thais Corral, who coordinated the Women’s tent of activities and speakers during the conference and she said, “You contacted people and made a schedule, but in the end you just hoped they showed up at the right time – which they did – because there was no way to reach them otherwise.” Inside and outside the negotiations, the agenda and the means of taking action on sustainable development for the next twenty years took shape: shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production, share the technology that will help states develop efficiently and effectively, eliminate poverty, and create international norms that will prevent pollution and environmental degradation. And since that time the general consensus seems to be that we’ve made a lot of progress, but the human world is still overburdening the nonhuman one. If things don’t shift, the Earth may be a sorry place to live a century from now. And so twenty years after the Earth Summit, in 2012, amidst economic turmoil in North America and Europe, emerging countries in the developing world beginning to exert their force on the world stage, and the effects of climate change beginning to be felt around the planet, Rio+20 convenes. The world awaits the results.

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