Rio+20+1 month

With apologies for the delay in publishing, in this blog post, one of our competition winners, James, reflects on his time spent at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.


Over a month has passed since the end of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

It was a busy time, and only now do I feel able to make sense of what happened. In the months leading up to the conference I was not optimistic that it would achieve what I, and countless others, thought was necessary: a meaningful commitment from the world to move to a sustainable model of development (specifically, no longer be based on using natural capital at unsustainable rates in order to fuel short-term benefits for a minority of the planet’s population).

Instead, I hoped for minor victories, such as publicity and hence raised awareness amongst the general public about sustainable development issues.

However, as Rio+20 imminently approached I became more optimistic as I succumbed to a sense of excitement surrounding the conference. All of a sudden it seemed like Rio+20 was everywhere. There was a flurry of articles about it in the press (with hindsight maybe I was just looking in the right places), and friends and family who had no previous interest in sustainable development issues were discussing it with me.

Even that week’s edition of The Economist was supporting it, opposing damaging fossil fuel and water subsidies and warning of the paradoxical nature (and dangers) of drilling for oil in the Arctic.

Travelling to Brazil further established this feeling in me: at Heathrow I spotted a passenger reading WEM (“The Environment Magazine”, not your usual departure lounge novel!) and on arrival in Rio there were banners, motorcades and Rio+20 themed sandcastles aplenty.

The buzz continued to the vast RioCentro conference centre. Whilst at the conference, I split my time between the official ‘side events’ there which caught my interest and the events organised by the Planet Earth Institute (PEI), our hosts in Rio. In my mid-conference blog post (published 21st June) I discussed two of the events that I attended.

Others which I think are worthy of note include:

  • ‘Resilient cities’, hosted by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and
  • Future cities’, hosted by the UN Human Settlements Programme

At the conference there were numerous side events about cities, which, as Ed discussed in a blog post and as I discussed in my first post, have a key role to play in future development as the centres of population and of the economy.

The discussion panels at both of these events included government ministers and advisers from several countries. The later event was particularly compelling, with a Singaporean cabinet minister discussing how important the decisions that are currently being made about cities as their impacts will last centuries. He also stressed the benefits of powerful city-level governance for decision making (very much the case in his native city-state and something which I felt was conspicuously absent from the recent proposal for elected mayors in the UK).

[As a slight aside I found the large focus on cities at Rio+20 slightly ironic. This was because Barra da Tijuca, the district where the conference was held, was to my eyes a textbook example of how not to design a city! It seemed to be an endless sprawl of shopping malls, apartment blocks and car parks, all only accessible by car with no mixed-use areas, no chance of mass utilisation of public transport/walking/cycling, and no sense of place. I heartily would recommend Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser and Car Sick by Lynne Sloman to Rio’s urban planners!]

  • ‘Inclusive green growth’, hosted by the World Bank. I was impressed by a South Korean minister who described how his country is introducing carbon trading, admirable in the on-going absence of a global or regional scheme. At the same event, Min Zhu, Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, stated that fossil fuel subsidies “…must … be reduced…” and evidenced how they mostly benefit the wealthy. Despite the failure of the Rio+20 agreement to even mention fossil fuel subsidies, I felt that for such a senior economic figure to say this was a small victory for the Twitter-based #endfossilfuelsubsidies campaign which ran on the eve of the conference
  • Events about CESSAF (Centre of Excellence in Applied Sciences for Sustainability in Africa), hosted by the PEI. The PEI discussed the post-graduate training centre that they are helping to establish in Angola with the aim of helping to make Africa scientifically independent and stopping ‘brain-drain’ from the continent

Meanwhile, as I was attending events such as these, the leader’s summit element of the conference was failing to agree to the rigorous declaration that had been hoped for. In the end, the final document contained hardly any fixed actions; instead the international community only stated that sustainable development should be ‘encouraged’.

One example of the document’s weakness is that the phrase ‘unsustainable consumption and production patterns’ was omitted under pressure from the United States – agreement could not even be reached that there even is a problem with our current model of development!

Another example is that the phrases ‘sustainable development’, ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘sustained growth’ all somehow became synonyms of one another in the document. The misuse and misunderstanding of terms such as ‘sustainable development’ is very unhelpful and a problem in the UK at least, a situation not helped by such confusion in major UN agreements!

I therefore had mixed feelings about the conference by its end. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Rio and had found it incredibly interesting, but the main outcome was deflating, even if it had been expected.

Minor successes did materialise though: countries, companies, and NGOs signed up to hundreds of voluntary agreements and numerous of small positive actions were showcased, such as South Korea’s carbon trading and the PEI’s CESSAF project.

Most promising of all though, was one definite aspect of the Rio+20 declaration: an agreement of a timetable to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) via a UN organised working group.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, due to expire in 2015) have been a reasonable success, and these proposed SDGs could be too if they are ambitious enough, target the correct areas, and win strong commitment from the countries that will need to implement them.

In my opinion, the SDGs should renew and increase the MDG targets in areas such water and sanitation, education, and poverty eradication, as well as target new areas such as harmful fossil fuel, agriculture, and water subsidies, resource efficiency, biodiversity and key pollution markers. If the SDGs do these things, and countries act on them, Rio+20 might not go down in history as a complete failure.

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