Rio+20: The Dawn of a New Multilateralism?
What do the outcomes of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development mean for future international cooperation, global governance and sustainable development? I would make seven points.[more]
First, the conference provided a fresh opportunity for a meeting of minds to safeguard the well-being of humanity and the planet, but serious differences over what constitutes economic growth and human well-being led to a less-than-successful outcome.
Issues including the role of consumption and production patterns, ecosystem services, and trade and technology in the transition to sustainable development continue to divide countries. Half of humanity has yet to enjoy the standards of living available to the others. Securing their well-being will entail huge pressures on global ecosystems from the need for infrastructure, energy and food. The optimum pathway to keeping within global ecological limits continues to be under discussion.
Humans have always altered their natural environment. What is new is that the adverse effects of economic activities exceed those of resource extraction. The Earth will soon not be able to absorb the carbon dioxide generated by excessive consumption. The lifestyle in industrialised societies threatens half of humanity, which has yet to enjoy the benefits of higher incomes.
While the theme of the conference was "green economy in the context of sustainable development and eradication of poverty", it was not possible to find common ground on how to deal with the huge unevenness of development, which has led to richer parts of the world having far greater ecological footprints than others. One positive step was the recognition in the outcome document of the “diversification of actors and stakeholders engaged in the pursuit of sustainable development” and that “sustainable development requires concrete and urgent action” which “can only be achieved by a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and private sector, all working together”.
Second, the issue is very complex because of the different ways global concerns or goals are defined. The US and EU sought to define the “green economy” in terms of changes that governments, largely in developing countries, need to make to convince investors to align asset allocation with environmental concerns.
Developing countries focused on human well-being, seeking agreement to modify longer-term trends in consumption patterns, largely in developed countries, and to link ecosystem scarcity with the sharing of new technology as a global good in the common interest.
Developing countries characterised the green economy as a “common undertaking” in the pursuit of which “each country can choose its appropriate approach”. Moreover, the Sustainable Development Goals, which will provide guidance for the collective efforts, are to recognise “national realities, capacities and levels of development” and be developed through an inter-governmental process under the UN General Assembly.
In return, developed countries secured dilution of the strong provision in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development against unilateral trade measures, settling for a weakened statement that urges states to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral measures. Even though the “central role of the UN is recognised” the agreement now acknowledges the “exchange of information” with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), with “trade distorting subsidies and trade in environment goods and services” recognised as important issues. In addition, unsustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be changed “where they occur”, not primarily in developed countries, and the “voluntary nature of the programmes” is highlighted.
Third, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities that has guided international co-operation over the past 20 years has now been re-defined, even as it has been re-affirmed. Developing countries cited the historic responsibility industrialised nations have to clean up the planet, while developed countries argued that a rapidly changing economic order means that all nations must work together in protecting the environment. The text recognises that “eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge” and “people are at the centre of sustainable development”, creating policy space for developing countries to define global goals. To get this, they had to give up entitlements based on historical responsibility. There is no mention of the need for developed countries to take the lead.
Consequently, international cooperation around the environment will no longer require the provision of “new and additional” financial resources, and the overseas development assistance commitment target of 0.7 per cent of GNP is now “in accordance with respective budget allocations”. The changed “aid architecture” is recognised, along with South-South co-operation, the mobilisation of resources from “all sources”, and “new partnerships and innovative sources of financing”. The new process will develop options for a financing strategy, taking these factors into account. Technology transfer will also now be “mutually agreed” and not on preferential and concessional terms, as agreed in Agenda 21, which was set at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
Fourth, while there is broad agreement that sustainable development should be based on natural capital - the natural ecosystems essential to the future flow of goods and services - differences between countries centred on the scope and scale of the social transformation that will also be needed in the use of scarce natural resources. What is new is that powerful countries recognise the strategic importance of access to limited global ecosystem services for economic growth, making the global commons both a shared economic resource and a borderless environmental crisis.
While developed countries have secured an opening for a new production-based framework with a reference to “sustainability reporting” by large companies, developing countries have been able to include provisions for country-level rather than international-level “monitoring and assessments” of balance sheets. They have also incorporated the understanding that “economic growth in developing countries is a key requirement for eradicating poverty and hunger”, laying a broad claim for using the limited atmospheric space for their waste carbon dioxide as part of global goals.
Fifth, sustainability goals are being sought for critical areas of “natural capital”, such as food, forests and soils, as well as oceans and freshwater to foster a green economy in which economic value creation is not coupled with environmental degradation. There is a divergence of perspectives on whether goals should relate only to local and regional environments, to the global environment, or both
Urbanisation, manufacturing and rising standards of living in developing countries will involve a population shift that is more than five times larger than what happened in developed countries, entailing huge pressures on global ecosystem services in the form of energy and infrastructure. Future debates over the new sustainable development goals will centre on whether these should be left to national governments and markets as in the past or new global values for redistribution are needed to change unsustainable consumption patterns.
Sixth, the related question of which United Nations body should provide oversight of the policies and measures has also resulted in a compromise. A high-level political forum with some relationship to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will replace the Commission on Sustainable Development, while United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been strengthened with universal membership but not upgraded to an international agency. This signifies the diminished role of the EU in environmental governance, as they were pushing very hard for upgrading UNEP.
Seventh, a new category of middle-income countries has come into being, effectively replacing the G77 grouping of developing nations with groupings based on levels of development and blurring the traditional North-South divide. India and China would do well to recognise this new multilateralism regarding the use of natural resources outside national boundaries and move away from requesting “aid” to improve human well-being.
Keeping within global ecological limits is no longer guaranteed by military strength or economic wealth alone but by the ability to shape collective action through a rules-based approach. There is now recognition that the complex political problems of global sustainable development cannot be addressed through treaties but through a new vision. The consensus at Rio+20 marks the beginning of a new goal-setting process, the focus of which should be on global patterns of natural resource use and not just on natural capital.