Time to Move Beyond Treaties: A New Framework for Sustainable Action

Written by Kevin Dennehy

Rio + 20 to 2015 Conference session
In the years since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Hans Hoogeveen has had a front-row seat to the long, often dispiriting, diplomatic attempts to meet the sustainability goals set by that conference — and by so many conferences since.
A former UN official who now works on global issues for the Dutch government, Hoogeveen is all too familiar with the systemic flaws that have stunted the push toward climate and sustainable development goals over the last two decades.
For starters, there’s too much focus on treaties, Hoogeveen told a conference held last week at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
“Lawyers and diplomats think they can rule the world, govern the world from New York, Nairobi or Rome,” Hoogeveen, director general of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, said during the event. “And I think we have to learn that this is not reality anymore.
“We have to build a new governance structure which is less focused on governing by countries and much more governing by coalitions.”
The conference made it very clear: There’s no more time to waste having broad discussions about instrument choices that are divorced from the actual problems they seek to address.
— Ben Cashore
At the recent conference, “Rio+20 to 2015: A New Architecture for a Sustainable World,” which was hosted by F&ES and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), top experts in climate and sustainability issues discussed what new global structures for enabling solutions might look like.
During the conference, which attracted more than 180 people from 30 countries, there was widespread agreement that the road to a more sustainable future will require more emphasis on coalitions that also include actions from the business sector, advocacy groups, and consumers.
“There is a real recognition that solely focusing on international treaties and other top-down approaches has not delivered the needed results,” said Brendan Guy M.E.M. ’13, a Global Fellow with NRDC and one of the event organizers. “We need a more dynamic and durable global partnership that cannot be crafted by governments alone. At the core is the need to build strategic partnerships and coalitions among groups that are willing to share responsibility and take tangible actions.”
In addition to producing specific recommendations on how global leaders can meet sustainable development targets — including more than 1,400 pledges made during last year's Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development — the Yale conference spawned numerous models and flow-charts for what this new “architecture” might look like.
In a video appearance, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, suggested the structure for tackling climate change should resemble a spider web, representing a complex network linking stakeholder actions across multiple levels.
But beyond charting what the model should look like, participants emphasized a need to link these discussions with adequate on-the-ground solutions to the most urgent environmental challenges.
The commitments made at Rio+20 — including environmental pledges made by the business sector — provided hope that the global community can start to achieve meaningful changes, said Ben Cashore, a professor of environmental governance and political science at F&ES and another event organizer. But those commitments won’t matter without smart, coordinated efforts on the ground, he said.
“Whatever model we take, we have to do a better job of linking discussions about these instruments and designs to some kind of expectations of why they might actually solve the problems,” he said.
“The conference made it very clear: There’s no more time to waste having broad discussions about instrument choices that are divorced from the actual problems they seek to address.”

The event generated widespread interest on social media, where Twitter users published more than 800 separate “tweets” about the event (#RioTo2015), generating more than 700,000 impressions during the event, according to the NRDC.