The Rio+20 conference resulted in reaffirmation of the 1992 Rio principles and action plans, some enhancement of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), outlining the benefits of the green economy, commitment to better ocean stewardship, and starting a process to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2015. However, in the eyes of many, the conference fell far short of its goals. The final document contained commitments that were less ambitious than hoped, and made no mention of hot button issues like phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, making corporations responsible for human rights violations, or protecting the Arctic.
“Unfortunately, what people focus on are the negotiations, but that part of the meeting is a remnant of the 20th century. What we see now are mayors, governors, activists and civil society groups all participating and creating new coalitions. To me that’s the value.”
- Jacob Scherr, Director of Global Strategy and Advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council
The focus on the lack of progress at Rio+20 has underplayed significant progress that did occur at the conference in three areas: the number of participants; individual nation’s commitments; and the formation of a new coalition of cities and other groups that are taking the lead in sustainability. The real accomplishments of Rio+20 may be the commitments made to sustainability reached outside of the formal conference.
Although the absence of heads of state from Germany, England and the United States was conspicuous, eight more counties participated in formal negotiations and the number of participants doubled from 1992. Some nations took advantage of the international stage to announce bold commitments toward building a sustainable future. For example, Australia is creating the biggest marine reserve in the world; the Maldives and Aruba set ambitious targets for becoming carbon neutral nations; and South Korea pledged official development assistance for green growth, including energy-efficient power generation, renewable energy, energy storage systems, green buildings, and infrastructure development.
“Even where nation states fail to make progress, it may be possible that cities, which may be the most important collections of populations on our planet, and the leading indicators, can lead the way in terms of how we deal with complex issues like climate change”
-Jay Knott, Executive Vice President for Global Business for Abt Associates, in Urbanization and Growth on a Finite Planet
In conjunction with Rio+20, the Brazilian government funded the”Rio+20 People’s Summit”, a counter-conference that brought together two hundred civil society groups, including environmentalists, unions, religious groups and indigenous tribes. Municipal public leaders, private sector leaders, NGO leaders, and other concerned citizens joined with heads of state and official delegations to engage not only in the formal conference, but in the People’s Summit, and a myriad of side events. There was an opportunity to share experiences, discuss on-the-ground action, and forge new partnerships. Outside of the official outcome document, the UN reports over 700 voluntary commitments from nations, businesses, organizations, associations, academic institutions, UN entities, and partnerships. Some commitments arising outside of official negotiations include:
- The C40 Cities for Climate Leadership group committed to a gigaton of carbon emission reductions
- The Consumer Goods Forum, a business alliance of large corporations including Unilever, Tesco, J&J, committed to end deforestation in their beef, soy, paper, and palm oil supply chains by 2020
- Microsoft committed to making all of its business operations carbon neutral by 2013
- The UK committed to mandate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reporting by the 1800 largest companies on the London stock exchange
“While international negotiations continue to make incremental progress, C40 Cities are forging ahead. Collectively they have taken more than 4,700 actions to tackle climate change, and the will to do more is stronger than ever. As innovators and practitioners, our cities are at the forefront of this issue – arguably the greatest challenge of our time.”
—Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City
One of Rio+20’s significant outcomes is the recognition that steps toward the future we want are being taken by cites, businesses, and burgeoning partnerships all over, even as world leaders find themselves unable to construct institutional blueprints in the Future We Want. Concerned citizens from all over the world are demanding more from their leaders, and in the absence of national leadership, are making changes in their communities. City governments are leading the way in emissions reduction and resilience planning because effects of climate change are being felt first at the local level. Cued by consumer concerns and inevitable policy changes underlined by Rio+20′s international support for the idea of a green economy, business leaders are picking up the business case for sustainability and taking proactive steps.
“We cannot conflate what the Rio+20 negotiations represent with what is actually happening on the ground, there’s a lot happening outside this conference that we need to build from. That’s where the real promise lies.”
- Manish Bapna, Executive Vice President of the World Resources Institute
In the Urbanization in a Growing World series, SSF is focusing on current research and policy innovations in cities as they grapple with the challenges of growing populations and climate change.