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What outcomes for Rio+20?

With less than two months to go to the Rio+20 Conference (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 20-22 June, Rio de Janeiro), and only 13 days for official negotiations, the task for the recently started round of negotiations at UN Headquarters in New York (23 April to 4 May) seems overwhelming: how will Member States turn the now more than 200 pages long negotiation document into a “focused political document”?

Indeed, while integrating all the amendments and additional proposals suggested by Member States, this document seems to be a “compendium of views” rather than a negotiated text. Political leadership and a need for prioritization are therefore urgently required to achieve what all Member States and stakeholders want to achieve: an ambitious outcome document loaded with action. What does this mean? What could the concrete outcomes and deliverables of Rio+20 be?

Considering today’s stand of negotiations, concrete deliverables on “the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” – one of the two main themes of the Conference – could relate to establishing capacity development schemes to create and strengthen people’s skills in order to prepare them for the new requirements that go hand in hand with the transition to a green economy. It could mean creating knowledge and technology sharing platforms that would disseminate best practices and toolkits (e.g. policies, incentives and regulations) on which countries could build for their national transitions to a fair, inclusive, low-carbon and resource efficient economy, taking into account their national priorities and country-specific characteristics.

Countries could agree on developing and implementing their own national strategies towards a green economy (some would call them road maps), based on an inclusive and participatory process that engages all stakeholders. If need be, the United Nations could provide support in designing and implementing such strategies. Road maps could include concrete policies related to the various sectors – ranging from industrial policies, to energy strategies to rural development plans – as well as timelines for progressively phasing out environmentally harmful subsidies (e.g. in the agricultural or energy sector). To measure progress on sustainable development, new indicators beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could be developed. The establishment of new public-private partnerships would help mobilize needed resources and a framework for corporate social and environmental responsibility would emphasize the key role business needs to play in sustainable development.

In terms of the institutional framework for sustainable development – the second theme of the Conference – uncertainty continuous to exist regarding the future status of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). While Member States seem to agree that the environmental pillar needs to be strengthened, they do not seem to agree on the best way to do so, as opinions differ when it comes to strengthening UNEP or upgrading it to a specialized agency. Afterall, reforming UNEP means that Member States will need to agree on potentially contentious issues, such as funding, membership and the extent of collaboration between UN agencies.

Uncertainty also exists around the future of the Commission on Sustainable Development. Will it rise to a strong Sustainable Development Council, similar to the Human Rights Council, to give orientation (agenda setting), coordinate and monitor sustainable development progress within the UN System? This would indeed be a major deliverable many stakeholders, especially within civil society, are hoping for.

Another major deliverable, for which many stakeholders have high expectations, is related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is expected that at Rio+20, Member States will agree on a process that would establish SDGs by 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will reach their deadline. Some civil society groups therefore propose that SDGs could build on the work of the MDGs and highlight the sustainability dimension of a new post-2015 development framework. Moreover, there seems to be growing support that the SDGs should apply to all countries and not only developing States.

What else? Agreements at Rio+20 are expected to cover a vast number of issues, considering the 26 emerging themes that are now tentatively included in the negotiation text, ranging from energy, food, oceans to social inclusion. The UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative has also provided valuable input Member States could benefit from when negotiating concrete goals related to energy access, renewable energy and energy efficiency. The protection of fishery stocks and maritime ecosystems is likely to be included in the outcome document, as is the development and implementation of social protection floor policies that allow people to face challenges related to health, child care, unemployment and age, among others.

The above-mentioned overview is only an attempt to showcase some of the potential outcomes of the Rio+20 negotiations. However, the underlying questions remain: how can these measures be implemented? Who will pay for them? What kind of capacities need to be developed and strengthened? How can the science-policy interface be enhanced and what technologies need to be globally disseminated? Convergence seems to exist that a transition to a sustainable development in any case demands knowledge and information dissemination and sharing, technology transfer, capacity building and financial resources. Section V of the outcome document that is currently being negotiated is expected to deliver clear answers to the above-mentioned questions as it will address “means of implementation.”

Rio+20 is not only about the official outcome document and not only about governments

While the negotiated outcome document covers a vast range of issues and potential agreements, stronger political momentum and leadership is expected to come in the coming weeks to make Rio+20 a real transformative event for a strengthened sustainable development agenda for the 21st century. Many civil society organizations remain critical with the ongoing negotiations, demanding more ambition, clear commitments as well as a rights-based approach to sustainable development. See, for example, the open letter to the Secretary-General of the Rio+20 Conference and Member States that was submitted and publicized by civil society organizations arguing against the “deletion” of references to human rights obligations and equity principles in the Rio+20 outcome document. There is also discordance with the excessive reliance on the private sector in the document. Some groups have posted a petition online to avoid "a take over of the UN by the private sector." To see UN Global Compact’s reponse to this petition, click here.

While expressing legitimate concerns and views, two things should be kept in mind by all stakeholders:

First, Rio+20 is not only about governments (and UN agencies). From the more than 50.000 expected participants, the huge bulk will come from Major Groups and other stakeholders. They will discuss, share views and best practices, network and form alliances through multiple events and activities organized at and in parallel with the official Conference. The People’s Summit, the Corporate Sustainability Forum, the Global Town Hall, the Youth Blast, as well as the hundreds of side events being organized by civil society representatives, all these and many more events show to which extent Major Goups and other stakeholders will shape “Rio+20” and turn it into an historic conference.

Second, Rio+20 is not only about the official outcome document. Political momentum and action for sustainable development will also be created through the mobilization of stakeholders around concrete activities and initiatives. At Rio+20, governments, business and civil society organizations are expected to present actions to improve people’s lives and well-being. To support this potential, a compendium with voluntary, specific, time-bound and monitorable commitments will be launched in Rio (see the online platform where stakeholders can register their commitments). The Rio+20 Secretariat expects more than 800 voluntary commitments to be made in the lead up to the Conference – meaning around 20 every day from now on. Partnerships around different issues of the sustainable development agenda can also be registered online and announced at Rio. One requirement, however, is that they specify their goals and the amount of available resources to make this partnership effective.

In short, Rio+20 offers a precious opportunity to shape the future we all want. It is time for all stakeholders to multiply their energy, leadership and enthusiasm and to create the historic momentum this Conference demands.

Read also: Rio+20: Second round of “informal-informal” negotiations start in New York

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.

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