Rio+20: three reasons to be cheerful

Examining the outcome of Rio+20, I can see signs of optimism for the future.

Opinions certainly differ. Todd Stern, the US chief negotiator, called June’s Rio+20 Earth Summit “a strong step forward”. But Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo said it was a failure of epic proportions.

Call me cynical, but these responses were scripted in advance. Campaigning NGOs have to describe these things as a betrayal – they have members to motivate, funds to raise, a perfect world to create. Governments have to declare these things a success – they have voters to impress, elections to win, a complex world to manage pragmatically.

So what’s an honest assessment?

The people who should feel most disappointed are the progressive governments who came in good faith, seeking to push forward coordinated global action through negotiation. Despite the thousands of hangers-on, it was actually an intergovernmental conference.  But this was no repeat of last December’s COP17 conference in Durban on climate change. There, EU ministers triumphantly brokered a deal between the developed and developing world by haggling over the text through the night.

Here, pragmatic countries in Europe and in the G77 who wanted to get commitments on sustainable development were frozen out by the agreement in advance between the big beasts like the USA and China. The NGOs were hoping this process would at least get commitments added to the draft text on policing of international waters. To that extent, both are right to be disappointed.

So why be positive?

First, it shows that action can’t wait for massive coordinated international agreements. Now progressive companies and pragmatic NGOs know they have to work together, topic by topic, agree about the problem, demonstrate the solutions, and then go to governments to say ‘here’s what you must do through the power of the state to roll it out’. A good example is the deforestation commitment made by consumer goods companies that the US government has said it will now take forward.

Second, the sheer mass of initiatives launched and commitments made, albeit timed for the conference, demonstrates the breadth and depth of what is going on around the world in all three sectors. Most encouraging is the Natural Capital Declaration on pricing the ‘free’ resources taken unrenewably from the natural environment.

Third, the proposal for a set of worldwide sustainable development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 will go forward. Sure, flesh was not put on the bones of the idea and it will be tough to get agreement first on the scope and then on meaningful targets. However this time companies will be part of the process, unlike the government-led MDGs.

Whatever the disappointments, Rio+20 has surely left no one in doubt that economic growth has to be socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable. The fact there’s a process going forward with companies involved, however messy, is surely worth celebrating.

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