Quick Takes on Rio + 20

Posted on July 25, 2012 by Leslie Carothers

If the Rio Summit concluded last month met expectations, it’s because they were so low.  The 49 page document summarizing the agreement by the government representatives, The Future We Want, was largely stripped of strong language and substantive commitments.  From my perspective, two failures and one success in the agreement stand out.  First, the diplomats could not muster a firm commitment to the UN Secretary General’s goal of ensuring universal access to energy services and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources by 2030.   Paragraph 127 on energy sources seems to give equal status to high and low carbon fuels, and earlier language endorsing reduction of environmentally and economically harmful subsidies was dropped. This was not an encouraging result for a summit focused on advancing a “green economy.”

Second, the final document also watered down statements of support for the rights of women to family planning services as well as ownership of various forms of property. Although 105 national science organizations joined many women’s groups in urging a strong stance on moderating population growth by providing reproductive health services wanted by women, objections by the Holy See (aka the Vatican) and backward members of the G-77 developing countries’ coalition caused numerous small changes in wording (e.g. promote vs. ensure) that ended up barely preserving existing UN commitments to rights to reproductive health services.  (See the analysis by Rebecca Lifton at the Center for American Progress) The brightest spot in the final agreement is a comparatively aggressive set of commitments to protect and restore oceans and marine resources.  Professor Ann Powers, oceans expert at Pace Law School, attended the summit and notes that 20 of the 238 paragraphs of the agreement dealt with oceans issues like plastic debris and fisheries management and included most of what ocean advocates sought.

The non-governmental attendees were far more successful in making commitments and connections.   Many members of the business community, for example, continued the tradition, begun in 1992, of active participation in the Rio meeting as an environmental trade fair in ideas, products, and contacts.   In one notable project, a consortium of 24 companies, collaborating with the Corporate EcoForum and the Nature Conservancy, has been working toward the goal of valuing natural resources used and saved by companies.  According to Neil Hawkins, Vice President for Environment, Health, and Sustainability at Dow Chemical, the goal of pricing ecosystem services to mobilize markets in advancing sustainable development was a major focus of events at the Rio summit. The meeting was a catalyst for making specific company commitments to develop and test valuation methodologies as well as an opportunity to educate a broader audience on progress being made.    

Finally, the legal profession sponsored a varied menu of law and governance programs. The World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability convened judges, prosecutors, practitioners, and auditors to debate how to make environmental law more effective and how to increase public access to legal remedies.  (See the Rio + 20 Declaration of the Congress). At a time when multilateral diplomacy cannot produce a binding agenda, lawyers are challenged to find new ways to secure commitments from parties willing to act to advance environmental progress.