The Challenge for Rio+20: Countering Two Decades of Inaction

April 27, 2012
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl acknowledges the applause by a group of unidentified official observers after he has signed the biodiversity treaty at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan/1992)

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, the United Nations (UN) is holding its Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. For a better understanding of the issues at play and a sense of what to expect from “Rio+20,” we talk to CIGI Distinguished Fellow David Runnalls. David was the political columnist for the Earth Summit Times, the daily newspaper covering the 1992 conference, and was a senior adviser to the UN’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, which tabled its report in January 2012.

CIGI: Regarding the broad concepts related to Rio+20, are “sustainable development” and “green growth” the same concept only repackaged?

David Runnalls: I’m not sure that there’s a substantive difference among all these things. But the governments have made a big deal of this because, essentially, you have the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) pushing the idea of a green economy. And UNEP, you have to remember, is a potential victim of this conference because one of the two agenda items is the reform of international environmental governance. That will either be a good thing for UNEP — i.e., strengthening it in terms of what it does — or it could get wiped out.

The UNEP has done this green economy report, which is quite an interesting report that says “these are the things we have to do, but it’s going to cost money.” The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has done a green growth report, so the OECD is promoting the idea of green growth and they’ve done a lot of work in this area. And the South Koreans have established the Global Green Growth Institute. So they’re putting up the whole idea of green growth, but it’s not brilliantly defined. And then, of course, there are the “old-liners,” largely the Brazilians, who are saying “we went through all this before and the answer is sustainable development.” So we have all of these things clashing on the stage. I’m not entirely sure there’s a huge difference amongst them. What they’re all basically saying is that we’re only going to get to nirvana or whatever it is with an economic system that pays attention to externalities and prices goods properly so they include all the costs of production and consumption, and takes into account the major threats to planetary boundaries that we’re seeing from climate change, port destruction, coral reef loss and so on.

CIGI: Has the paradigm of sustainable development helped produce a greener global economy or is it, as some have suggested, merely window dressing?

Runnalls: We haven’t had sustainable development, so it’s hard to tell. The ultimate problem with the follow-up to the Brundtland Commission (the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987), is that governments have only nibbled around the edges. Some have done more than others — the Europeans have gone quite a bit further implementing the principles of sustainable development. Most other countries, and particularly Canada, have memorized the word and can regurgitate it at the drop of a hat, but they don’t mean it, and so it’s never been given a proper chance.

CIGI: What do you see as the biggest changes — positive or negative — to safeguarding the environment in the two decades since the first Rio summit?

Runnalls: On the negative side, I could give you a million. We were talking in the 1990s about the “turn-around decade” in which the world only had 10 or 15 years to get its act together on things like climate change, biodiversity loss, the deterioration of the health of the oceans, increasing rural poverty. We haven’t exactly made serious progress on any of those issues. In fact, if you look at the Brundtland Report, which has an excellent diagnosis of the depth of the problem, the only difference now is that the situation is 20 years worse. I have just seen a piece by the International Energy Agency that says we’re on the path to a six-degree increase in global temperatures. At the Copenhagen conference (COP 15), all governments acknowledged that anything beyond a two-degree increase would be catastrophic. We’re now talking three times that much and we’re still sleepwalking. There’s absolutely no sense of urgency about this conference in Rio.

CIGI: In a previous interview, you suggested that Rio+20 wouldn’t achieve much until we got past the intransigence of the United States on these issues. Do you still think that’s the case?

Runnalls: I think the United States is not going to be helpful. But there aren’t any real “tap-ins,” either. This is a non-starter because these things are out of whack with the US electoral cycle. During a presidential election, there is no conceivable way, in my view, that Obama could gain any political points whatsoever by going off to an international summit that addresses questions of redistribution.

But there are ways I could conceive of some tangible gains coming out of this. One of the more useful things would be if they set sustainable development goals similar to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But if that happens, I hope they are merged with whatever succeeds the MDGs rather than being set up as a new set of goals. Because if that happens, there will be all sorts of individual goals that will all get watered down. We will have goals for human rights, child labour and all sorts of other things. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but the effects become diluted the more goals that are set.

Where I think it will be really interesting is that there will be 50,000 people there, so there’s going to be a lot of intellectual synergy in a lot of the side events. The schedule calls for three days of meetings followed by three days off. These days are being filled with what they’re calling “Brazil days,” which they’re quietly organizing with the help of the World Economic Forum. Even though Davos doesn’t have its name on it, it’s like a “mini Davos” with panels of “über-experts.” The rationale is that they would try to digest the recommendations in each area into something useable, which could then be presented to the heads of state, who are only attending the final three days. The UN Global Compact has also planned three days of meetings on private-sector involvement and the potential for partnerships. So that could be very interesting.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.