Officially speaking, the preparatory process for the Rio+20 Earth Summit to be held in Brazil in 2012 begins on Monday, May 17. But by real measures the discussions – even negotiations – on Rio+20 have now been going on for many weeks.
Certainly, the recent meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-18, 3-14 May, 2010) was largely consumed by the shadows of Rio+20.
The world has already decided that there will be a “Rio+20” conference: the official title is “The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.” They seem hesitant to call it a “Summit,” let alone an “Earth Summit” just yet, but it is nearly certainly that eventually they will. It is, after all, the 20th year commemoration of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, which itself had marked 20 years since the 1972 Stockholm conference.
The world has also decided where this will be: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where else?
There were, in fact, other candidates for host city, but if you are going to throw a global party, there is no place better than Rio. I had argued before these decisions were made that if the purpose of Rio+20 is merely to have another global party, then we are better off without it. The world is already partied out. However, if we do decide to have the party then let us be sure that there is a reason big enough to match the size of the party. I still hold hope that we will find such a reason.
The world has also figured out what they want to discuss at Rio+20. The key themes are to be ‘green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty’ and ‘institutional framework for sustainable development.’
Of course, if past practices of such gatherings and current passions of the decision-makers are any guide, one can be certain that other issues will also creep in. Most prominent of these, most certainly, will be climate change. The Secretary General of the United Nations, no less, has thrown his hat into the ring by creating his “high-level” panel for exactly that purpose.
There is nothing wrong with climate being on the agenda. Indeed, it is only natural that it is. However, one does worry that the climate behemoth could devour all the attention at Rio+20 and highjack any real discussions of any other issue. More importantly, I am afraid that despite al the talk about ‘sustainable development,’ climate at Rio+20 will be not more than another discussion on global carbon management. That would be a pity.
If, indeed, climate is to become big on the Rio+20 radar then it should be talked about as a real development issue – and that means a focus on adaptation issues, especially including water issues.
The most exciting thing on the national agenda for Rio+20 remains the issue of governance. Not “environmental governance.” But, “sustainable development governance.” Everyone agrees that this is a good move. No one will ever suggest that it is going to be easy.
In fact, this was one of the conclusions of a panel full of luminaries convened by the Pardee Center – Amb. Carsten Staur of Denmark; Amb. Kaire Mbuende of Namibia; Dr. Tariq Banuri of the UN Division of Sustainable Development; Dr. Ashok Khosla, President of IUCN; Dr. Tom Bigg of IIED; and myself from the Boston University Pardee Center. The notion of sustainable development governance will necessarily expand the actors involved in the discussion. But it will also make the discussion more representative of the decisions that actually impact the global environment.
What remains to be seen is whether institutions that define themselves as “environmental” will be really willing to give prominence to those who are primarily “development” institutions. Even more unclear is whether “development” institutions will have any interest in sitting next to their “environmental” cohorts.
If that happens – as it well could – the idea of sustainable development governance will die the same way it was born. Without fanfare.
And that would be a real pity.