How The Rio+20 Text Could Have Been Stronger

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the Rio+20 summit

by Adam James, Andrew Light, and Gwynne Taraska

The final draft text of the Rio+20 Earth Summit agreed on today has disappointed many delegates and activists around the world. Other than the Brazilian chair of the meeting, no one seems to be strongly defending the document.

The World Wildlife Fund has declared the text “a colossal failure of leadership and vision.”  Ida Auken, the Danish Environment Minister and Chair of the European Environment Council, remarked that “the EU would have liked to see a much more concrete and ambitious outcome, so in that respect I’m not happy with it.” Even Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said that he had hoped for a more “ambitious” outcome, though he quickly added that we should understand the difficulty has been over resolving “conflicting interests” among the parties.

Some of this criticism could be overwrought.  Unlike the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, this meeting never aimed to produce a new international treaty or a process that would lead to an international agreement.  From the start, its most ambitious aim was to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals that would replace the Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed to in New York City in 2000 and are set to expire in 2015.  Given the conflicting interests identified by Moon, it is impressive that the parties were able to go on the record supporting as many progressive changes in the development and environment agenda that they did.  But while the current Rio text acknowledges (and occasionally even underlines, underscores, and stresses) that action on sustainable development and climate change is urgently needed, it is deficient in specific goals, details on how to achieve them, and target dates.

Some, like former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, President of the U.N. Foundation, reply that we shouldn’t focus on the text as much as we should focus on the public-private partnerships that are being announced at the meeting around initiatives such as Moon’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative, which has drawn $2 billion in support from the U.S.

Wirth has a good point.  At this moment, there may be no need to wrangle further over why the Rio text is as weak as it is. Instead, we should move on to make these newly emerging institutions of international cooperation work as well as they can.  In the end, what was produced at Rio looks much more like a G20 text, simply articulating the lowest common denominator among the parties.  While activists may have hoped for more, this could be the best we could hope for in this kind of process when an actual treaty is not on the table.

Still, there are some interesting lessons to be learned here from how this text went wrong.  If we go back and look at the development of the Rio text, we can see that it could have been bolder if some parties had been allowed to strengthen it.

The Evolution of the Text

We compared the current final text in Rio with the text as it had been negotiated up to June 2nd.  We chose the June 2nd version because it still identified requests by parties to put in or take out language from the document.  Parties at the time were half-way through a two-week long meeting at the UN in New York during the third round of informal negotiations to draft a text. In contrast, the final draft from earlier this week is a text determined by the Brazilian chair of the meeting to be the best compromise between the competing interests of the parties.

Our main conclusion is that while responsibility for this final text now rests with all the assembled parties in Rio, the chair of the meeting could have pushed harder on the parties to produce a more ambitious text by negotiating throughout the week.  Instead, the pattern seems to be one of eliminating any disagreement on any item, which resulted in a joint declaration now charged with failing to provide adequate targets, timelines, or guidelines for achieving any of its aspirations.

Our comparison reveals another conclusion as well:  Had the United States’ position prevailed in the negotiations, the final text would have been stronger in terms of its chief weaknesses of specific goals and roadmaps for success.

Of course, the same could be said of the changes requested by many other parties.  But the comparison with the United States’ position is particularly instructive because the U.S. is often criticized for being one of the most conservative parties in international climate negotiations.  For example, in the part of the Rio text devoted to supporting the Millennium Development Goals as they move toward their completion in 2015, the United States wanted to eliminate language calling for increased contributions to achieve those goals.  But if a party that many perceive as one of the more conservative in these talks was in favor of a stronger agreement, then we can only imagine what would have happened if the negotiations were pushed harder.

Take, for example, the paragraph on Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL). SE4ALL has three goals:  (1) to eliminate global energy poverty by 2030, (2) to double the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030, and (3) to double the share of renewable energy in the global mix by 2030. Prior to the Rio meeting, Ban Ki-moon was promoting it as a potential centerpiece of a Rio agreement.  Although the United States sought to curtail language in the earlier text that implied financial assistance from UN member countries to achieve these ends, it strongly pushed for including language in the text on private sector engagement. The final text, interestingly enough, scrapped both avenues for funding these initiatives – and just made no mention of funding whatsoever.

So far as we can tell, the Sustainable Energy for All provision in the draft Rio document, as the United States would have had it, is:

We note the Secretary General’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative and its aspirational goals of ensuring universal access to modern energy services by 2030; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030. We recognize that resources will be necessary to achieve these results particularly through enabling environments that unlock private sector investments. We encourage voluntary follow-up efforts to coordinate and to catalyse public-private partnerships and to track progress towards its three goals and, in this regard, we encourage States and relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, to conduct, as appropriate, collaborative international research and capacity development based on a roadmap to be developed through a multilateral process, involving all stakeholders.

The final text was dramatically shorter and cut out several important clarifications, including the U.S. comment on enabling private sector investments.  Equally important, if not more so, especially given the criticisms of the text now circulating in the media, is the fact that the final version cuts out any mention of the need to develop a roadmap to achieve these goals inserted by Kazakhstan apparently due to objections by China and the “Group of 77” developing countries.  To add insult to injury a caveat is added at the end of the statement essentially letting off the hook any party which doesn’t want to try to achieve these goals.

We note the launching of the initiative by the Secretary General on “Sustainable Energy for All,” which focus on access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energies. We are all determined to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality, and through this, help eradicate poverty and lead to sustainable development and global prosperity. We recognize that countries’ activities in broader energy-related issues are of great importance and are prioritized according to their specific challenges, capacities and circumstances, including energy mix.

An important caveat to this claim is that while the earlier draft text reveals what parties wanted inserted or taken out, it doesn’t show what all parties thought about every provision.  A country would not have been able to articulate an objection if another country already registered a reservation. Still, absent any other evidence, a push for stronger support for SE4ALL would have delivered a better conclusion to the meeting.

At some point though, SE4ALL was eclipsed in the negotiating process by an attempt to use Rio to create a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, which could eventually replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015.  Here too, we see a pattern where even cautious improvements in the text were rejected.

Sustainable Development Goals are not articulated in the text. The attempt to express them resulted in a burgeoning list of goals, as parties pitched in their favorite priorities. Instead, the final document establishes a new “high level political forum” charged with starting a process this fall at the opening of the U.N. generally assembly in New York that will come up with a set of new sustainability goals.  It is entrusted with a range of things, such as encouraging system-wide participation by all U.N. agencies, enhancing the consultative role of relevant stakeholders in the process, strengthening the science-policy interface for setting goals, and making decision-making more evidenced-based. It will be composed of 30 members, nominated by the member states and representing all regions of the world, and is charged with delivering a final set of recommendations by 2014.  This forum also will have an institutional home in the U.N. system and will eventually replace the existing U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, which was the official convener of the Rio summit.

Still, some of the more interesting additions to the text, which could have improved this process and even staved off some of the criticisms now being levied against it, were jettisoned last week in the push to find consensus early in the meeting.

In the section on financing these new goals, the U.S. moved in several places to modify the overwhelming reliance on public assistance common in the U.N. system.  But they did offer an alternative in a proposed section on tax reform to help the poor, which was struck entirely in the final text. Here’s the U.S. proposal:

We reaffirm that national ownership and leadership of development strategies and good governance are important for effective mobilization of domestic financial resources and fostering sustained fiscal reform, including tax reform, which is key to enhancing macroeconomic policies and mobilizing domestic public resources. Countries should also continue to improve budgetary processes and to enhance the transparency of public financial management and the quality of expenditures. We emphasize the need to enhance tax revenues through modernized tax systems, more efficient tax collection, broadening the tax base and effectively combating tax evasion. We stress that these efforts should be undertaken with an overarching view to make tax systems more pro-poor. – US (adapted from Monterrey 16)]

This entire section was struck.  The final text, which merely says that member nations recognize “the crucial importance of enhancing financial support from all sources for sustainable development” is not nearly as specific.  There were additional attempts to give the financial portions of the Sustainable Development Goals a needed boost, but those proposals were also dropped from the text.


In responding to criticisms of the final text, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that if you convened 193 of the protestors in Rio, “they would have difficulty finding a common denominator, too.”  He’s likely correct.  But given the legacy issues at stake for how this conference will be remembered – and the possibility that the summit will come to be seen as a reason to abandon meetings of this scale – a harder push on the assembled parties to strengthen their commitments would have been worth it.

The opportunity to do that, of course, is now over.  We hope that the new commission begins its work by mining earlier drafts of the Rio document for actionable ideas.

Adam James is a Special Assistant and Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.  Gwynne Taraska is Research Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.

13 Responses to How The Rio+20 Text Could Have Been Stronger

  1. EDpeak says:

    “In responding to criticisms of the final text, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that if you convened 193 of the protestors in Rio, “they would have difficulty finding a common denominator, too.” He’s likely correct. ”

    Correct only if taken literally to mean, “difficult” but NOT correct if taken as he intends to imply, between the lines that they would have failed.

    In fact, they would almost certainly have succeeded in finding a strong common denominator – just look at cases where far more than 193 activists have come together (e.g. Occupy movement) to come up with strong, eloquent, and relevant sets of positive and constructive goals and even action plans.

    So no, the root cause is not the 193 differnet members, it’s something else, something that ties down world leaders and not the grassroots.

    Principally, it is the disfuntionality of global political governing institutions, and the power of the Global Corpotate Feudalist economic system over them

  2. EDpeak says:

    IPS has a different take on what the financial aspects are that we being pushed:

    how the Rio+20 green economic model is “based on massive private investment in clean energy, climate-resistant agriculture, and ecosystem services… Under this new concept, Wall Street gets to reap profits from a whole new line of business, and governments get to spend less protecting the environment.”

    “The fear — echoed by many environmentalists and anti-poverty groups — is that by putting a price on things like water or biodiversity as a way of managing their use, we turn them into commodities and risk having basic needs and services fall victim to speculators who make money off volatile prices.Think about it. Does it make sense to put the future of our remaining common resources — forests, genes, the atmosphere, food — into the hands of people who treated our economy like their personal casino”

    What went wrong? Part of the answer is that the original Earth Summit avoided two of the biggest elephants in the room. One, that infinite growth on a finite planet is an exercise in futility.

  3. A pathetic situation, where the reality of the situation – clearly spelled out in timely editions of major scientific journals – seems to have been basically kept out of the room.

    Chances to do better before it is too late are running out.


  4. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent article.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  5. Martin Lack says:

    I find it hard to reconcile this very pro-US spin on the outcome of the Summit with that of George Monbiot in the Guardian newspaper in the UK…
    ‘Several of the more outrageous deletions proposed by the United States – such as any mention of rights or equity or of common but differentiated responsibilities – have been rebuffed. In other respects the Obama government’s purge has succeeded, striking out such concepts as “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and the proposed decoupling of economic growth from the use of natural resources.’

    Can anyone help me?

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Martin, I have the same problem, and I doubt that the two assessments can be reconciled. (Yet it’s a very good question for the CAP/CP folks, so hopefully they’ll address it.) My sense, after reading numerous assessments and the whole darn Rio+20 text, is that the essential take-away from Monbiot’s piece is much, much more accurate than the impression left by this one, sadly.

    Be Well,


  7. john atcheson says:

    The Guardian carried a story by George Monbiot that linked to changes sought by the US delegation in the text … if you want to know how it could have been stronger, look at that link. We played the role of a corporate thug.

  8. john atcheson says:

    Whoops. That’s the problem with making comments without reading the other comments. Sorry Martin. YOu said it first and best.

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Rio was a total failure, another year wasted.

    In no way can it be considered any sort of success, just another lets all think about it and precisely nothing.

  10. Martin Lack says:

    Thanks Jeff. It’s now Monday morning; and I’m still waiting. I suppose I could email the authors(?)…

  11. Martin Lack says:

    You’re very kind, John (I have done the same sort of thing more times than I care to remember). In what way is it “progressive” to excuse “corporate thuggery”, growthmania and acquiescence in the face of political pressure from the Fossil Fuel Lobby???

  12. andrew light says:

    Sure, what we focus on in this piece is the criticism that the text lacks in specific goals and road-maps for achieving whatever the parties agreed on by way of a priority. There, our analysis is that the US was in favor of making many of these items more concrete, which coheres with their stated position on initiatives like Sustainable Energy For All prior to the meeting.

    It certainly is true that the US cut other language throughout that many find objectionable but we didn’t want to get into those arguments in this piece because it would have become too unwieldy for a column. To do it right we’d have to say, for a negotiating text running well over a hundred pages, which additions or subtractions from the text we liked or did not like by all parties participating in the negotiations.

    Nonetheless, on the items that you mention I would defend the US position that “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR) should be struck from the text. This is the same position the US took in Durban last December. CBDR has been turned into a stalking horse for the Kyoto firewall between the obligations of developed and developing countries to the point of supporting the unsustainable contention that a climate treaty that would not bind China to reducing their emissions is acceptable. CBDR absolutely needs to be replaced with some other notion of equity, and until one can be found, the idea of equity as such may not be helpful in these texts other than to become yet another stalking horse for CBDR.

    I’d have to look at other examples of where the US took out rights language from the text that you think should have been included. There is one place where the US took out a claim that every country has something like a ‘right to exploit its own natural resources for their own ends’ which I agreed with. I’m sure there are examples though where I would object to some rights claims being taken out by the US. The only instance of rights claims in the text we focused on at CAP was on women’s issues where the Vatican took out language endorsing a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy, which was supported by the G77 and China.

    Again though, our argument should not be construed as saying that the text would necessarily be better if all the US changes had been accepted in the document. We are focusing instead on the very specific issues of the lack of attention to concrete goals and processes for anything in the text that have become the core of the criticisms of the Rio document. We’re publishing another version of this on the main CAP website today or tomorrow and make sure that this is clearer.

  13. Martin Lack says:

    Thanks Andrew. It has been suggested that many expected too much from Rio but, I agree with those (scientists) who say we are running out of time in which to solve our environmental problems. As I have said on my own blog today:

    Given the looming financial and economic catastrophe that collective hypnosis at Rio+20 has just made inevitable… remember, it will not happen because anyone wishes it to happen; it will now happen because our leaders chose to ignore the scientists that told them they needed to act to prevent it happening…