Cautious Optimism: Run up to Rio +20

by Kristina Byrne on May 21, 2012

As the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) approaches, thousands of participants from government, NGOs, the private sector, and other groups are preparing to join world leaders in a discussion of The Future We Want. Stalled negotiations to establish an action agenda for the conference have led to another round of unscheduled negotiations from 29 May-2 June, in an effort to break the deadlock.

Last Monday, UNCSD secretary general Sha Zukang told the Guardian, “the negotiating text is a far cry from the focused political document called for by the general assembly.” Referring to the Future We Want Zero draft document, Zukang’s goal is to have 90% of the document ready, leaving the most difficult 10% to be negotiated in Rio. The zero draft document started as 6,500 pages compiled from 686 submissions from member states, international organizations and civil society groups.  Whittled into 128 paragraphs on 20 pages, it expanded to over 200 pages, and was consolidated to under to less than 100 pages during  the last round of negotiations.  However, political disagreements have arisen on the issues of equity; sustainable production and consumption in the global north; social justice, particularly with regard to resource extraction in the global south; and technology transfer and trade.   As Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being discussed as alternative measures of progress to replace and/or compliment the established metrics of Millenium Development Goals and GDP, “Some developing country participants have expressed concern that SDGs would be ‘all about the environment,’ instead of what they believe should be the main focus – poverty alleviation1.” Concerns and disagreements with respect to social and environmental aspects of sustainability are demonstrative of not having reached a shared, integrated definition of the term. In a recent report on sustainability and the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Research Council defined sustainability as both a goal and a process2.  Working toward sustainability as a goal requires an open dialogue about needs and concerns to establish a shared definition of what we are, collectively, working toward in Creating the Future We Want.  The process must address past trends of inequity, injustice, and distrust, in order to construct new priorities and new possibilities for the future.

In an appeal to the delegates at the close of the last round of informal negotiations (23 April- 4 May), Sha Zukang reminded them,

“We may all come from different backgrounds and bring with us different perspectives, but we are all looking in the same direction, moving toward the same destination – a sustainable world.”

In the face of cynicism surrounding the seeming stalemate international negotiations, his words echo the hope of a movement that has hosted Global Dialogues in 15 countries, built an on-line community of thousands of people submitting visions and solutions for building the Future We Want.  In the synopsis of Alison Tate of International Trades Union Confederation,  “We hear the voices of citizens everywhere calling for a better future. Millions of people are demanding their rights and expecting fair and green solutions to poverty and suffering now. The message is clear: it’s time to change course and put the future of people and the planet first.”

If you haven’t already, add your voice to the Rio Dialogues.


1International Society of Sustainability Professionals. 2012. Run-Up To Rio+20: Preparatory Activity at United Nations In High Gear

2National Research Council. 2011. Sustainability and the U.S. EPA. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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