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We do not need more global sustainability conferences

Steinar Andresen and Arild Underdal • Jun 19th, 2012
We do not need more global sustainability conferences

Do we need another global sustainability conference? More specifically, what can be gained by spending a substantial amount of human and financial resources on the Rio+20 process?

Global conference diplomacy can be an effective tool for setting agendas, learning and establishing an institutional setting for further negotiations. These were all important functions in the previous millennium. Considering the existing dense institutional framework there is no more need for such agenda setting. We need action and implementation as we know what the problems are. As shown in the process to Rio+20 global mega-conferences are also vulnerable to ideological posturing that foster polarization and lock-ins. These problems may effectively block the search for specific solutions. The UN sustainability governance negotiations are about to reach that stage, and the Rio+20 conference cannot cope with that challenge.

The diminishing returns of global sustainability conferences           

The 1972 Stockholm Conference was a watershed event in placing environment firmly on the international political agenda. It spurred the development of environmental ministries, agencies and new legislation and established UNEP to strengthen the role of the UN in environmental stewardship. The impact can be seen also in a number of international environmental agreements signed in the 1970s.

The developing countries had participated only reluctantly in Stockholm but got actively involved at the 1992 Rio Summit. The World Commission on Environment and Development (‘the Brundtland Commission’) had provided a formula for integrating the interest of the South in economic development with Northern concerns about environmental protection. The notion of ‘sustainable development’ highlighted long-term common interests and facilitated agreement, facilitated by high-level political leaders. The Summit was a break-through for green NGO participation. It produced the remarkably ambitious Agenda 21 and served as the birth-place for important global conventions. These and other achievements seemed to confirm the value of such summits. However, the aftermath showed their limitations as key promises were never delivered.   

The Stockholm conference took place in ‘virgin territory’ and the Rio Summit in an era of unprecedented optimism. By 2002 the mood was pessimistic as governments struggled to come to grips with the threat of terrorism. The Johannesburg WSSD was intended to promote implementation; it ended up repeating some of ambitious UN millennium development goals and added a few of its own. Call for institutional reform loomed large during the preparatory stage but little or nothing came out of it. In 2003 the UN General Assembly seemed to realize that a more selective and strategic approach was suggested. Some of us believed that this could be beginning of a more sharply focused approach. We were wrong.

The Pre-Rio 2012 process: business as usual

Since the UN General Assembly decided to convene UNCED in 2012 a number of preperatory meetings of various kinds have been held. The world’s diplomats have been very busy, but progress has been slow. Considering the deep-seated differences on key issues the concluding document will probably be vague in substance.  

Fortunately, there is no need to participate in the Rio process to find out what is happening. You can save time, money, and CO2 emissions by instead reading the detailed accounts of the meetings in the Earth Negotiation Bulletin. These accounts are boring but also instructive in documenting the ideological grand-standing and repetitions of well-known positions that characterize the process.  Under the thematic areas, twenty-three issue areas are included. Most of them are already covered by existing agreements so the value added seems to be marginal. Conflicts loom large over long-standing issues such as national sovereignty, good governance, targets and time-tables, human rights and emission standards. One example suffices to illustrate the difficulties. Under ‘sustainable transport’ the G77/China requested deleting a reference to the need for reducing pollution and emissions and for clean fuels and vehicles. Conflicts are equally pronounced on implementation, technology-transfer, financial assistance, trade and capacity building. These issues have been discussed in the UN system since the early 1970s, with modest progress.

Two more specific issues are selected for UNCED 2012; a template for ‘green economy’ and the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD). The precise meaning of the ‘green economy’ concept is disputed but, like ‘sustainable development’, it is designed to serve as a conceptual platform for integrating environmental protection with economic growth. Not surprisingly, some Northern countries and UNEP have pushed this issue, but many developing countries see it as framed more in terms of Northern perspectives and fear that it may be used to legitimate new demands that will hurt their exports and to reduce development assistance. At this stage, the green economy notion does not serve as a ‘silver bullet’ to a new global program for earth system governance. The last negotiating meeting in early June gave a clear indication of the difficulties as the parties reached agreement on only 1 out of 17 paragraphs.

Reports from the preparatory discussions on IFSD show little progress from the run-up to WSSD in 2002. The EU and followers still want to upgrade UNEP to a specialized agency. The United States and key emerging economies disagree and together they can veto significant change. Prior to WSSD some EU countries advocated the creation of a World Environment Organization (WEO), but the idea never gained sufficient traction. In the process prior to Rio a new idea has emerged, the creation of high level political council on sustainable development. To the EU’s credit it has suggested that if such a council is established the Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) should be terminated. Since CSD has been little more than a polarized ‘talk-shop’ for UN diplomats over its 20 years of existence this would a step in the right direction. A high-level council may be able to mobilize the political clout to move negotiations out of current deadlocks, but the United States and G-77/China are skeptical. The most important lesson to be learned from these difficulties is that institutional reform must build on common – or at least compatible – ideas about policy directions. That platform is not in place. In its absence, discussions about organizational reform tend to turn into promotion of solutions in search of a purpose.  

One of the substantive ideas that have emerged in the pre-Rio process involves the formulation of ‘sustainable development goals (SDGs)’. Not surprisingly, this idea has become subject to disagreement reflecting well-known cleavages between the US, the EU and G-77/China. The Rio meeting may nevertheless be able to agree on procedures and a timeline for further work to flesh out the idea. What the world needs now is, however, not another set of lofty goals but progress in the development and implementation of specific and effective measures.

The UN has been extremely eager to establish ambitious goals, but the goal attainment has been less impressive as the necessary underpinning have often been missing. UN conference goals have, at best, had marginal impact as drivers for the most important changes in the environment and development areas. China has succeeded in lifting about 400 million people out of poverty by its own efforts and good use of the opportunities provided by a liberal international trade regime, motivated primarily by its interpretation of self-interest. The general lesson to be learned from these and many other examples is that the interest in goal making needs to be tempered with efforts to identify and develop specific measures that countries will implement. Moreover, a number of international organizations established for other purposes have important advantages in brokering pragmatic package deals. The EU is the cas célebrè, but also the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Maritime Organization and several others can make significant contributions, often much more so than global conferences.

Since 2008, concerns with economic recovery have occupied policy-makers and ordinary citizens. Arguably, this is exactly why we need the Rio meeting to bring sustainability back on the agenda. The conference will likely do so – for a few days. For the longer term, it will be more important for the UN and the world community to figure out how global conference diplomacy can be redesigned to more effectively promote environmental stewardship, as it did in the early stages. One potentially important step could be to redesign the preparatory stage in a way that does not trigger established cleavages from day one. For example, one or a few small groups of experts – including seasoned diplomats acting in their personal capacities, top researchers, and perhaps other prominent experts – may be able to help by transcending the well-known cleavages between a Southern poverty-and-development discourse and a Northern green economy counterpart and by suggesting new ways of integrating divergent interests and norms. We do not need to bringing thousands of participants to a series of mega-conferences to confirm that the range of politically feasible solutions is quite narrow. At this point, a small invest in arrangements that could help diplomats and policymakers transcend current gridlocks may yield higher returns.

About the Authors

Steinar Andresen, The Fridtjof Nansen Institute, and Arild Underdal, Department of Political Science, University of Oslo, and Centre for Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO). Both authors are members of the Earth System Governance Lead Faculty.

Picture: ENB

Tags: United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992,United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 Earth Summit)
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Thinking globally, acting locally

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