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.