Spotlight Rio+20: Key issues facing Rio+20 summit

Martin Khor

Part of the Triple Crisis Spotlight Rio+20 series.

The UN Conference known as Rio+20 starts on 13 June.  There will be no major breakthroughs to tackle the global crises, but it can still be a success if the leaders can agree to reaffirm the old commitments and launch some new modest initiatives.

This week, up to 100,000 people are streaming into Rio de Janeiro for the year’s biggest international event – the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held on 13-22 June.

It is more popularly known as the Rio+20 Summit, to commemorate the landmark Earth Summit of 1992, which placed the environmental crisis into the mainstream of political life.

Rio+20 is meant to reaffirm the political commitments made then, and to come up with new action plans to counter the crises which have become much more serious than 20 years ago.

But the negotiations to produce an outcome document got bogged down with new concepts, especially the ‘green economy’, and now the developed countries appear reluctant to a simple reaffirmation of the original Rio equity principle, or to re-commit to provide finance and technology transfer.

It is now disappointingly clear that there will be no major breakthroughs in Rio. But Rio+20 can still be a success if it reaffirms old commitments and launches new processes to strengthen institutions and to initiate new goals and action plans.

However, on the eve of the meetings, it is not clear whether several outstanding issues will be settled by the time the Presidents and Prime Ministers arrive on 20 May.

The first contested issue is whether the political commitments made in 1992 will be reaffirmed as still valid today.  For developing countries, a “must” is the reaffirming of the Rio principles, especially the common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).

Under the CBDR, all countries have the duty to act but developed countries have to do the most in environmental action plus provide finance and technology transfer to developing countries so that they can move towards sustainable development.

However, developed countries are showing reluctance to update their endorsement of CBDR.  Some, especially the United States, want developing countries (except perhaps the poorest) to take on similar obligations as the North.  Failure to endorse CBDR would be seen as a big retreat from Rio92.

The second issue is the Green Economy, designated as a priority issue of Rio+20.  The problem is that there is no internationally agreed definition of this term.

Developing countries are concerned that the ‘green economy’ will replace ‘sustainable development’ as the key paradigm in the environment-development nexus, with the loss of the Rio 92 consensus. They are also worried that the term may be misused as grounds for trade protection, and aid conditionality.

They want it to be defined as just a tool to achieve sustainable development, and not a new policy prescription or framework.

However, developed countries believe the green economy is a new important concept that can lead to changes in the way economies are organized.   The Europeans want Rio to endorse a UN green economy roadmap with environmental goals, targets and deadlines, which is facing resistance from many.

The third issue is the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which is expected to be one of the key “deliverables” in Rio. The developing countries have accepted SDGs as a concept and an operational tool.  They  want the three pillars (social, economic, environment) to be represented in a balanced way in selecting the goals, and they are concerned that the EU has put forward only  environment goals.

Rio+20 will launch a post-Rio process to decide on the goals and their details, since it is too late to come up with a definitive list.  However, most developed countries, especially the EU, want some SDGs (energy, water, oceans, land issues) to be listed as priority goals, so that Rio+20 can have some tangible results.

However, the G77 and China do not want to mention any issues, since any list of SDGs must have balance among the three pillars and there is no agreement yet on how to select SDGs.

Another dispute is on who should formulate the SDGs, after Rio.   Developed countries want the UN Secretary General and his selected experts to draw up the SDGs, whereas the G77 and China want the governments to do it.

A fourth issue is the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD), or how to ensure the institutions are up to the task.   There are various proposals, including creating a new Sustainable Development Council which meets regularly, and a high-level political forum on sustainable development with annual Ministerial meetings.

There is also broad agreement that UNEP has to be strengthened and given more resources.  However there is an on-going dispute as to whether UNEP should become a UN specialized agency (which is strongly advocated by European countries and by Africa) or retain its status as a programme but be strengthened (which most other countries prefer).

Finally a hotly contested issue is providing finance and technology to developing countries, which successfully argued 20 years ago to enable their switch to environmentally sound development paths.

The developing countries insist that Rio+20 should at least renew the original commitments of new and additional financial resources, and to make efforts to meet the aid target of 0.7% of GNP.  However even these minimal aspects are being resisted by some developed countries, especially US and Canada.

The G77 and China has proposed that developed countries provide at least US$30 bil a year in 2013-17 and US$100 bil a year from 2018 onwards, and to set up a sustainable development fund.   The developed countries have however objected to both.

On technology transfer, the situation is equally bleak.  All major developed countries have objected to reaffirming the 1992 commitments to provide technology transfer on concessional and preferential terms to developing countries.

They proposed the term “voluntary transfer of technology on mutually agreed terms” which implies sale of equipment on commercial terms, which is opposite to the technology transfer concept.   Even mild language to have a balanced approach to IPRs has been rejected, as has the concept of enhanced access by developing countries to environmentally sound technology.

The above issues will eventually have to be ironed out, but how it is done will determine whether Rio is a success.   Success will require trust to be rebuilt by reaffirming the principles and action framework of Rio 92.

The commitments made on providing finance and technology transfer to developing countries have to be renewed and made relevant to the present needs.  Action plans for various subjects should be endorsed.  A commitment to bring about new or at least stronger institutions has to be made.  And agreement has to be reached on the new issues that has taken a lot of the energy and time of the Conference preparation – the green economy and sustainable development goals.

This article was originally published in Third World Network.

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