GEF newsletter Greenline

Why Rio+20 Will Succeed

By Gustavo A. B. da Fonseca

The global environmental agenda overflows with meetings. According to unofficial estimates, formal conferences on biodiversity, climate change, and desertification consume more than 240 days per year. Taking other environmental conventions into account, there are fewer days in a year than there are meetings to attend. The world has grown weary of slow-moving negotiations that lag further and further behind the mounting environmental problems they are intended to solve. Our growing understanding of the linkages between environmental and economic progress only makes this trend more worrisome for developed and developing countries alike.

Meetings and conferences have a tendency to over-promise and under-deliver. So when a conference comes along promising less than scintillating results, the tendency is to expect something truly unremarkable to emerge. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of the low expectations for the Rio+20 Summit this June, there is reason to believe that the gathering could be one of the most important and forward-looking environmental conferences yet. You will need to bear with me, however, to understand why.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – the official designation for the easier-to-say Rio+20 Summit – comes against a backdrop of increasing cynicism about the utility of such uber-gatherings. There are grounds for believing that this sentiment is well deserved. On the political front, the early hope for a concise, forward-looking "outcomes" document has given way to United Nations standard operating procedure in which flocks of grown women and men convene in negotiations devoted to splitting commas and quarreling over the proper placement of gerundives. (And if you don't know what a gerundive is, you haven't participated in one of these meetings.) The snappy 19-page "Zero Draft" document, dubbed, "The Future We Want," a herculean consolidation of some 6,000 pages of contributions from hundreds of governments and organizations, has now ballooned to over two hundred pages. Only a few negotiation sessions had been planned to finalize the outcomes document; many more sessions have now been scheduled to cope with meeting the deadline for the bulging document.

The stated objectives of Rio+20 are to achieve "renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges." Taken together, these amount to something less than a sweeping agenda for tackling the world's environmental problems. On the margins, the Rio+20 agenda will also include the green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD). The former can be thought of as the identical twin of our old friend, sustainable development; the latter is really code for options revolving around the status, role and naming of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and of U.N. commissions. In short, judging from the agenda and ongoing discussions, Rio+20 promises to produce nothing far out of the ordinary.

Notwithstanding the modest expectations, some 50,000 people are expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro this June, with lodging options now stretching to bed and breakfasts, living room couches, and beachfront camping. Why are so many people eager to attend a gathering expected to produce so little?

Whatever the fate of the outcomes document and the sustainable development negotiations, I believe that the opportunity for Rio+20 to produce significant results mostly lies elsewhere. As has been said many times, predictions generally lack accuracy, particularly those having to do with the future. But to quote the 19th century English humorist Theodore Hook, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. I have come to believe that, if the participants try very hard, Rio+20 may turn out to be a resounding success. Perhaps the other 49,999 people who have booked hotels, rolled up sleeping bags or called old friends for a spare bed have drunk from the same Kool-Ade. We will find out.

The key lies in turning weakness into strength. The drawbacks surrounding the ongoing negotiations coupled with the underwhelming official agenda may actually propel Rio+20 into uncharted but highly creative territory. Because no new convention or globally-agreed targets are on the table, the diplomatic stakes are not overly high. As a result, the traditional divide between north and south, between the developed and developing worlds, that slows down U.N. negotiations could yield to something far more productive than a repetition of old talking points. Rio has the luxury of dedicating time to explore how to remove the principal barriers for committed groups of countries and economies to change their trajectories toward a more sustainable path. Absent the pressure to achieve universal consensus on every aspect related to their development and environmental management, participating nations may surprise themselves with the benefits they can accrue through practical means.

The inspiration should come from the outcomes of the original Earth Summit of 1992 – arguably the most successful global environmental gathering ever convened. An unprecedented 108 heads of state joined by 25,000 other participants descended onto Rio for a historic two weeks that would change the world. The Earth Summit would prove to be the cradle of the three major international environmental conventions that, among other things, provided the Global Environment Facility with a mandate to become their financial mechanism. In many ways, the governments and negotiators gathered in Rio 20 years ago were not in full command of the consequences of their agreements. Perhaps they, too, drank from the first batch of Rio Kool-Ade, a beverage known to the locals as caipirinha. 

While most observers continue to be skeptical about Rio+20 and its possible outcomes, I am beginning to sense the same exhilarating energy that coursed through us all in June of 1992, amid the largest and most diverse group of people ever gathered to address a fundamental problem for humanity.

In the sands of Flamengo Beach 20 years ago, where the civil society's Global Forum camped for two full weeks, one could casually join a chat group of strange bedfellows – an American vice presidential candidate, the leader of the Kayapo Indigenous people, the founder of one of the leading Silicon Valley technology giants, an internationally famous musician destined to take on a Ministerial position in the Brazilian government, a Brazilian tycoon-turned-environmentalist, together with a civil society folks from Brazil and abroad – to discuss the hydroelectric dams planned for the Brazilian Amazon that could affect the future of Indigenous peoples and their territories. Brazil's energy matrix was and continues to be one of the cleanest in the world in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, but the trade-offs entailed by the damming of rivers were worrisome. Brazil faced tremendous international and domestic pressure to reduce the deforestation that made the country one of the largest global emitters of greenhouse gases, undermining the gains provided by its low-carbon hydropower base. Many of the proposed solutions bandied about in that informal chat are now realities on the ground.

Moving a few meters down the beach, the President of Latin American operations for the Bank of America explored with environmentalists and government officials the pros and cons of debt-for-nature swaps involving assets it owned throughout the continent. And some of the early elements of what would eventually become UNFCCC's Clean Development Mechanism were conceived in the sands, cafés, bars and restaurants of Rio.

Next June, with double the number of expected participants of 20 years ago and with less distraction expected from the political segment, the opportunity for cross-sector fertilization of ideas and for the birth of new initiatives is poised to expand dramatically from the baseline of what was achieved in Rio in 1992. And today's global connectivity will further expand participation well beyond those who will be physically present in Rio.

The summit comes at a time when Rio de Janeiro, one of the world's most gorgeous cities, home of the largest and most luxuriant tropical forest urban park, is experiencing a strong revival along with the booming Brazilian economy. Following some three decades of decay and mounting social problems, Rio will follow up on Rio+20 by opening its doors to the next FIFA World Cup and then the Olympic Games. Cariocas, the natives of Rio, are an amazingly friendly and confident bunch. The current stream of optimism could be contagious, with the ability to imbue the proceedings of Rio+20 with positive energy. And as in the case of the first Earth Summit, the intellectual leadership of Rio+20 rests with a small but dedicated group of visionaries at the United Nations and with committed champions in the Brazilian government. Just as in 1992, a vibrant Brazilian civil society organized around hundreds of organizations will ensure that the emerging solutions and commitments receive the widest possible discussion and dissemination.

As with all aspects of life, true consensus takes time to develop, but decisive action need not await everyone jumping on board. The Rio+20 competition for the best and most forward-looking commitment has begun. U.N. Secretary General Bank Ki Moon has rallied behind commitments to be forged "in corporate board rooms, government ministries, and thousands of local communities around the world" to bring sustainable energy to even the most remote corners of the planet. In the last week of March, some 3,000 scientists gathered in London produced a synthesis of a new science for Planet Earth that will be brought to Rio+20 as the State of the Planet Declaration. A Global Partnership for the Oceans called for by the World Bank, weaving together the most diverse set of institutions ever assembled to tackle the health of oceans, is to go to Rio and commit to real action. And organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are quickly developing transparent and easy-to-access registries of commitments – otherwise known as the Rio+20 compendium of commitments – to ensure that those who make promises at Rio are held accountable. These are but a few of countless other new initiatives under development for Rio.

The three Rio Conventions established under the auspices of the United Nations made significant strides through their infancy and adolescence. These landmark agreements will likely concentrate on implementation of what could be agreed over the past 20 years rather than on radical new approaches. But as we continue to push the limits of Earth beyond many of its vital dimensions – the so-called planetary boundaries - the world is in dire need of breakthroughs. Rio+20 may become their launching pad.
The dream for Rio – "The Future We Want" – will most likely emerge from the realization that groups of committed people, organizations, businesses and states can indeed make a difference in the time frame that the planet and our society require. The old admonition to think globally and act locally is striking back with a vengeance. Let's hope that at Rio, while the adults are kept busy playing the customary game of Scrabble with their conference texts, the creative party will take over unsupervised. I truly feel that something special is about to happen.

The author is the Head of Natural Resources at the Global Environment Facility and a veteran of Rio 92. He was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, raised in Brasília since the age of two, and spent countless vacations in Rio de Janeiro, becoming a Carioca by heart. 

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