In a few days, world leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years since the 1992 Earth Summit, to discuss and commit to the ever-elusive goal of sustainable development. Occasionally, as in 1992, such conferences produce seminal new treaties, commitments and institutions that shape the future of international cooperation on the global environment. This notion of guiding the future is the driving impetus of Rio+20, but unfortunately, the conference is taking place against a backdrop of discord and difficult economic circumstances. What then are the challenges facing the Rio+20 conference?
Unlike past gatherings, there appears to be little expectation and excitement surrounding Rio+20, and few following the conference have high hopes for concrete outcomes. For a start, there are no plans for the conference to deliver any major new international agreement or binding commitments on governments to take action. In the absence of binding commitments, there is concern that any commitments made during the conference will not significantly contribute to a more sustainable future.
Low expectations are likely a product of an unsupportive surrounding context:
- Negotiations on climate change have been progressing very slowly in recent years;
- The emergence of major new economic powers is redrawing the geopolitical landscape and shaking up discussions about sustainable development and other international environmental issues;
- The original distinction between developed versus developing countries has been blurred and appears to no longer be workable, if it ever was; Most notably, the central concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities has become very strained;
- The notion that the sustainable development charge would be led by developed nations, with developing nations following their example has become untenable;, as developing nations seek to rapidly advance without necessary taking the same path of industrialisation of countries before them;
- European governments are currently distracted by the ongoing financial crisis in the Eurozone;
- Slow growth, high unemployment and large budget deficits plague other important players, such as the US;
- Major emerging countries too seem to have little interest in agreeing to new global goals, particular on sustainability and climate change.
- As yet, no new paradigm has materialised to account for the changes in the geopolitical landscape, and a new political order whereby major emerging economies would assume new responsibilities commensurate with their newfound influence and capacity.
Adding to the more substantive disagreements is general sense of fatigue among both governments and civil society stakeholders alike as a result of multiple and protracted multilateral processes that have often failed to live up to their promise. While the original Rio conference 20 years ago was met with excitement and enthusiasm, many participants in international environmental processes are not able to summon such enthusiasm in the context of a congested and bloated system of international environmental governance and a seemingly endless stream of international meetings that promise much, but deliver little.
The summit will be attended by French President Francois Hollande and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and others, but US President Barack Obama, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be notably absent, owing presumably to their aforementioned domestic concerns.
Despite the absence of some important figureheads, some 50,000 attendants will make the conference the largest UN conference to date. Indeed, the inevitable frenzy of networking, side events and exhibitions taking place before the conference between these delegates may well prove to be more fruitful than the conference itself.
The Rio+20 conference is a crucial summit, with the potential to define a path toward sustainable development, but it takes place at a difficult time, with interest lower than it should be for a summit on such a crucial topic. It can only be hoped that civil society and progressive and proactive governments can whip up the necessary support for strong and considered actions that can deliver a more sustainable future.