Next up Rio+20 – will it be inclusive this time around

It has been the 20 years since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) where historic declarations and conventions were agreed up such as Agenda 21 – the blueprint for sustainable development, the Forest Principles, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  We had established the the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and we had agreed acted upon the “Our Common Future” that was produced five years before in 1987. Twenty five years in the making during the recent Rio+20 intersession in NYC we were making some progress in articulating our common future which is still development for all without comprising our environment for future generations.

The discussion agenda at the intersession was focused on the zero draft – the outcome document to be produced at the actual conference itself in Rio in June. The structure, format and content of the document. Unlike the UNCED in 1992, this time around states and organization could submit their version of the zero draft – there were hundreds of submissions. It was generally agreed that poverty eradication is the bottom line for the nations that came together but how to go about achieving that goal was described in various ways. United States called for voluntary commitments for green economy while developing countries called support for capacity building, technology transfer and investment. Nations also stressed the need for institutional reform, coordination and the better governance. It was an effort to build confidence and trust among the nations to work towards a common goal.

I and few other students from Yale F&ES, as part of the NRDC team, talked to the official delegates to hear their side of the story and what their preparations were for the upcoming meeting at Rio. The ones that I talked to appreciated the inclusive process of creating the zero draft – there were submission from nations, political groups, non-governmental organizations around the world. However, they were also waiting to see how the chips would fall before the conference – whether their suggestions would be incorporated into the final document. This would determine whether their head of state would attend the meeting and what they would bring to the table. Another delegate was excited about their proposal to create a platform that allowed voluntary free technology exchange and hoping it would materialize in Rio. One delegate even confided that unless foreign occupation of the Middle East was addressed sustainable development would not move forward. For me, that conversation changed how I thought of sustainable development – it was no longer just achieving economic gains without irreparable damage to the environment but it was also to build a world in harmony where people can live in dignity. But when it came to concrete actions there was beating around the bush. One of the Global Sustainability Panelist (panel assigned to reflect on and formulate a new vision for sustainable growth and prosperity, along with mechanisms for achieving it by the UNGA in 2010) quoted Mahatma Gandhi on people exploiting resources and pushing beyond planetary boundaries but later on said something to the effect of “we acknowledge biophysical planetary boundaries but would not want to constrain economic growth”. Similarly, when another delegate was asked about initiatives and examples they would bring to the table, he replied that there were numerous examples of initiatives taken by non-governmental organizations and other groups and that we should not only look at the government for initiatives.

With all the excitement and hope pinned on the Rio+20 to build our own inclusive pathway to sustainable development how will the chips fall? Will waiting for others to act and others to take to the lead be too late for Rio this time around and for the world?