Weighing in on the Rio+20 Outcome Document: Is this the Future F&ES students want?

Weighing in on the Rio+20 Outcome Document: Is this the Future F&ES students want?

By Brendan Guy, Angel Hsu, Vijeta Jangra, and Jaimini Parekh

The final outcome document, “The Future We Want,” was finalized yesterday on the eve of a series of high-level plenary sessions and roundtables, where more than 130 heads of state and government will be meeting to share perspectives. The final negotiation text  is pared down to 49 pages (from over 200 pages at its heaviest) and 283 paragraphs. So how does the Outcome Document (OD) measure up? We – four students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies – weigh in.

Overall Impressions
The OD reads like a generic statement of political intent – even though all Parties negotiated and eventually agreed to the text, it is non-binding and likely will not change much as heads of state and government convene in the high-level summit.  As such, the OD does not represent any major breakthroughs or innovations, and in fact, excludes potentially more progressive and contentious items, such as new streams of financing for developing countries to achieve sustainable development.

The OD is also not just another multilateral environmental agreement (MEA).  More than anything, the negotiations over the last year and a half have been about economic development first and foremost and the OD reflects that.  Early in Para. 2,  eradicating poverty is identified as the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an “indispensable requirement” for sustainable development. This statement demonstrates that Rio+20 was not “just another environmental summit” – it’s about more than just the environment.

Placing themes of poverty eradication, green growth, and people at the fore of the negotiation agenda has created an interesting dynamic at the Rio+20 talks.  The same human-centric approach, recognizing that “people are at the center of sustainable development” (Para. 6), that was promulgated in 1992 at the first Rio Earth Summit is still present 20 years later.  Much to the chagrin of civil society, the more “earth” and nature-centric language regarding planetary boundaries, the carrying capacity of Earth, and tipping points were excluded.

The following paragraphs highlight some of the notable language on issues we personally care about:

Human Rights and Sustainable Development – Jaimini Parekh
Human rights have gained representation in the OD compared with the Zero Draft that had almost no recognition of human rights.  The recently affirmed text, likely to be adopted over the next few days includes in its definition of a common vision, affirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other rights such as, the right to development, to gender equality, and to food to name a few. In a press conference yesterday, Navi Pilay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights commended the advancement of human rights within the document bringing attention to the significant inclusion of human rights recognition that took place over the past two weeks during the negotiations to finalize the text of the Outcome Document (for a more in-depth analysis, please stay tuned for Jaimini’s upcoming blog post on Human Rights and Sustainable Development).

Sustainable Development Goals – Angel Hsu
The inclusion of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is being touted as the major breakthrough in the Rio Earth Summit. These goals are meant to replace the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015. Originally proposed by Colombia, the SDGs will be “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspiration, global in nature and universally applicable (Par. 247)” – a tall order, although differences with respect to national realities, capabilities and levels of development will be taken into account.

Unlike the MDGs, however, the OD also specifies the accompaniment of targets and indicators that can assess progress toward the achievement of SDGs – a specification that the crafters of the MDGs did not specify. Hopefully when further details of SDGs are worked out, there will be some consistency between metrics for these targets, so countries can have some basis for benchmarking and comparison, as well as sharing of best practices. Toward this end, Para. 251 of the OD recognizes the “need for global, integrated, and scientifically-based information on sustainable development.”

Beyond GDP – Angel Hsu
We were encouraged to see that language that recognized the inadequacy of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the sole indicator of human progress and development made it into the final text.  Para. 38 recognizes the need for “broader measures of progress to complement GDP” so as to “better inform policy decisions.” See a previous post of how some countries and initiatives are working to define such metrics to incorporate environmental sustainability and other indicators of progress into the policy agenda.

Climate Change – Angel Hsu
As expected, climate change was not prominently mentioned in the OD, likely because the latest round of UN climate negotiations just concluded this past December in Durban, South Africa. However, Para. 191 does note the “significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges” and the commitment to contain global average temperature increase below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (See UNEP’s report: Bridging the Emissions Gap). While recognition of the emissions gap is important, the language in the OD does nothing to suggest or recommend how this gap might be closed, only “reaffirming” the decisions adopted in the Durban Platform.

Energy – Vijeta Jangra
The OD clearly lays out that access to energy is important for poverty eradication, social inclusion and gender equality. Recognizing UN Secretary General’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative, the OD supports access to energy by 1.4 billion people worldwide. The energy services include electrification, clean cooking and heating solutions. The significance of energy efficiency, renewable energy, low-emission technologies and cleaner fossil fuel technologies is highlighted. Public and private sector investment in cleaner technologies has been encouraged. The document addresses the concerns of the poor, emphasizing that adequate financial resources should be harnessed to provide energy services to them. The document also supports the implementation of policies by nations based on their domestic scenario and developmental needs.

Sustainable Tourism – Vijeta Jangra
Sustainable tourism was not taken into consideration in the Zero Draft (the first draft) of the OD. However, it is interesting to note that the OD mentions the significance of sustainable tourism, quoting in Para. 130 “ that well designed and managed tourism can make a significant contribution to the three dimensions of sustainable development, has close linkages to other sectors, and can create decent jobs and generate trade opportunities.”  The OD puts forth the importance of regulations and legislation to promote sustainable tourism, including eco-tourism and cultural tourism.
Oceans – Angel Hsu
Cooperation to address the dire state of oceans and marine ecosystems was seen by many as a high priority item for the OD.  Many countries and civil society were calling for language in the OD that would have the UN General Assembly negotiate an implementing agreement to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that would address sustainable use and conservation of marine life and biodiversity on the high seas.  However, the United States and Russia were the only two countries opposed to such an action, and as a result, the 19 paragraphs related to oceans only go as strong to say that countries have agreed “to initiate, as soon as possible, the negotiation” of such an agreement.  Lasse Gustavsson, WWF head, said that this “might as well mean nothing at all.”

Future Generations overlooked – Brendan Guy
One broadly supported proposal at Rio+20 is to institutionalize a mechanism for explicitly taking into account the needs and interests of future generations. Over 40 international conventions and agreements speak to the need of prioritizing decision-making to better serve future generations. However, many governments, as well as the United Nations, often compromise future generations’ interests for nearer-term economic and political objectives.

In the Zero Draft of the OD, language was included on considering the establishment of an Ombudsperson, or Representative, for Future Generations in order to better promote and integrate sustainable development. Establishing a position to give a voice to future generations was supported by the Rio+20 Common Statement from all nine major groups in the input process (business and industry, children and youth, farmers, indigenous peoples, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, scientific and technological communities, women, and workers and trade unions).

Even after long hours of lobbying and direct actions at the entrance to negotiating rooms, explicit reference to the position was removed from the resulting OD. However, from dialogue with relevant stakeholders, almost all states were supportive of the position but wanted more information and greater trust in the modalities of the platform. The text did, however, highlight the need for intergenerational solidarity, and therefore called on the Secretary General of the United Nations to prepare a report on the topic.

While this language was an initial disappointment for many involved in supporting the position, it is actually quite symbolic of the Rio+20 process in itself. We can never expect a perfect negotiated text that contains all the vital elements that citizens around the world truly care about for creating a more sustainable world. What this initial phase of the Rio+20 process has done is to gather diverse groups of people and organizations around commonly-shared visions for the future. Rio+20 was never about the actual words on paper, but rather the emergent processes and conversations it catalyzes and people it brings together. Rio+20 has provided the platform for us all, whether we were engaged in the process or not, to come together for the kind of world we want to live in and to seize the future we want.

For more commentary on the Outcome Document of Rio+20,  please see fellow student Jose Medinamora’s take on the Rio+20 outcome.