From Agenda 21 to ‘The Future We Want’: Rising Powers and Rio+20
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the Rio+20 Earth Summit, took place in Brazil from 20-22 June, and culminated in a non-binding agreement titled 'The Future We Want'. This outcome document has been widely criticised for its lack of substance, particularly when compared with the ambitious Agenda 21, the Rio 1992 Earth Summit outcome document. 'The Future We Want' is seen to do little to achieve what is needed in order to protect our planet from the negative effects of globalisation and climate change.
IDS interviewed Dr Rômulo Paes, a visiting fellow on the IDS Rising Powers in International Development programme, and the former Vice-Minister for Brazil's Ministry of Social Development on the post-Rio agenda.
Given that the Rio+20 conference was billed as a high-level international gathering, was it surprising to see so many world leaders absent at the summit?
A number of leaders informed the host, Brazil; that they would not be able to attend, and they didn't. So in that sense, there were no surprises. However, it was interesting to note that this didn't seem to make much of a difference to the conference itself. This led participants to start exploring the idea that perhaps things really are changing... Usually, big leaders think the party won't happen if they're not there, but it seems the band was still playing anyway.
By not sending adequate representation, many developed countries essentially renounced their coordination capacity, and therefore invariably ended up delegating responsibility for the content of the outcome document to other countries. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because it opens up space for other actors.
How much of this space was open to civil society?
It's important to remember that the Rio+20 conference was always going to be a conference for governments, which meant that civil society's role was already limited before the event even started. Having said that; significant space was made for the voice of civil society. I spent a lot of time in RioCentro, where a plethora of side events had been organised by civil society, ranging from NGOs to academics and grassroots activists. Participation from civil society was more structured and organised, but it is evident that the politicisation of these events means their ability to interfere or actively participate in the outcome of the resolution is limited, and that could be improved upon. Nonetheless, as far as Brazil is concerned there were lots of debates with civil society in the lead-up to Rio+20.
Brazil has been criticised for weakening the outcome document by removing any controversial elements to ensure it would be signed by all the participants.
Absolutely – and Brazilian diplomacy has taken this conciliatory position since the 19th century. Like all countries, Brazil's foreign policy takes care of its commercial interests. It's not in its interests to 'rock the boat' by picking unnecessary fights. A good example of this is Venezuela's recent membership of Mercosul. Politically, this is extremely sensitive, but in terms of Brazil's commercial interests, it's a great deal.
It's not that Brazil think the 'others', such as the Chinese, are more trustworthy when compared to the United States or Europe – they are effectively tarred with the same brush. This generates certain frustrations – for example, NATO hoped Brazil would react in a manner more aligned to NATO's interests for being cultural nearer to the 'west', and that is indeed the case as far as commercial interests and behaviour is concerned, but politically, Brazil will always take the conciliatory position.
The economic crisis is evidently a stumbling block for the acceptance and ratification of environmental agreements – the problem is that compliance with technology which is environmentally-sustainable is often more costly. On the other hand, rapid economic growth is always accompanied by different actors coming together to oppose debate on associated environmental implications, out of fear for increased regulation.
I think the fact that Brazil succeeded in bringing such diverse players together who agreed on the outcome document is in itself an achievement.
It is worth noting the speed with which the Brazilian Government worked to launch the new Rio+ Centre, a World Centre for Sustainable Development set up in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to mark their commitment to the Rio+20 Conference. It's designed to facilitate research, knowledge exchange and promote international debate around sustainable development.
- The Beyond Rio Resource Centre details experts, publications and other resources from IDS, the STEPS Centre, SPRU, and University of Sussex aligned to the two themes and seven critical issues identified by the UN for Rio+20.
- Find out more about the Rising Powers in International Development Programme.
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