Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 2 April 2012

Rio Plus 20 Summit issues hotly debated

The second half of March 2012 saw intense debates at the United Nations on the issues in a draft of a declaration or plan of action to be adopted by heads of states at the UN summit on sustainable development in June.  Some of the major issues are discussed below.


 The biggest United Nations event this year is the summit on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in June, and more than 127 heads of government have already signed up to speak at the conference.

Whether all the political leaders will eventually turn up depends on whether they think it worthwhile.

Hopefully, they should.  The world is facing multiple crises, including the worsening of environmental problems such as global warming, water scarcity and biodiversity loss.  There are social problems including the persistence of poverty, the widening of inequality, and the loss of effectiveness of modern medicines as bacteria get immune to antibiotics.

Then of course there’s the global financial and economic crisis and its aftershocks.  A period of great uncertainty lies ahead, with slowdown inevitable in both developed and developing countries.

These issues are all part of the business of sustainable development, which has three pillars (social, economic and environment) and the promise of financial and technology support to developing countries.   

In the past fortnight, (19-27 March) the UN in New York hosted a meeting known as “informal informal” negotiations to piece together a plan of action that the Summit is to adopt.  The latest draft has 206 pages. It has to be brought down to a tenth or a fifth of its present length.

At the end of the first reading, the key issues to be addressed by the Summit have become clear.  Each issue is still hotly contested, mainly along North-South lines.

First is the divisive issue of the “green economy.”   Developing countries are uncomfortable with this concept, as it can mean different things to different people.  Their fear is that this term, if accepted too generally at a Summit level UN meeting, may pave the way for environmental issues to be used as the basis of trade protectionism or new conditionality for aid and loans.  Officials of these countries fear their products and services will be hit in Western markets. 

Indeed the present draft contains one country’s proposal to get the World Trade Organisation to change its rules so that countries can use trade measures on a product on the basis of how it is produced.  In other words, the pollution or emissions produced while making the product can become the basis for additional tariffs to be placed on the product.  This is presently not allowed, or at the least is greatly discouraged, in WTO rules.

The European countries want an elaborate Green Economy road map, with goals and targets on various sectors and issues, to be adopted by the Summit.  Developing countries on the other want to restrict the green economy text to broad principles, and to get this concept to be defined as closely to sustainable development as possible.

The second major issue is closely related to the first.  Most countries have agreed that the Summit will set up “sustainable development goals” (SDGs), which in a way would be an alternative to the green economy road map idea.  Developing countries are more comfortable with SDGs, since there is already an understanding on sustainable development, with its three pillars and the promise of finance and technology support to developing countries.

Developed countries are now keen to put in as many SDGs as possible and to have the goals, indicators and targets with deadlines mentioned in the Summit text.  They mainly have environmental goals in mind, such as addressing climate change, resource use, and pollution.  Developing countries argue that the economic and social goals such as sustained economic growth, poverty eradication and reform of the global financial system must also be included.

Since there are only less than 20 negotiating days left before the Summit that will take place on 20 to 22 June, it is most unlikely that agreement can be reached on the specifics of the SDGs.  So it is more likely that the Summit will not settle on details but instead launch a process of one or two years for the UN General Assembly or a working group under it to work out the goals, indicators and deadlines for reaching them.

A third issue is the institutions that will follow up on the plans, continued discussions and activities after the Summit.  This is in fact the most important issue, because a conference, including one at Summit level, is ultimately only as good as its long-term influence and effects.

The present institutions dealing with sustainable development are too weak.  Many countries are proposing or considering setting up a new Sustainable Development Council operating under the UN General Assembly.  It would be an upgraded version of the present Commission on Sustainable Development (which had been set up after the Rio Summit on Environment and Development of 1992) which is widely seen as being too weak in design and structure.  The CSD meets for only two weeks in its annual session (and one or 2 weeks in between over the years) and that is insufficient to cope with the dozens of social, economic and environmental issues that form 1992 Rio Summit’s Agenda 21 and its follow-up 2002 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and which are the content of sustainable development.

The new Council could meet much more regularly, even throughout the year (like the Human Rights Council or the WTO), and it would have a stronger secretariat.  That, in any case, is in the proposal of some countries, and this is also supported by the Rio Plus 20 secretariat in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

However, a few other countries do not want a new Council but prefer to reform and strengthen the existing Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  That would be fine if it could be done, but others point out that ECOSOC reform has been going on for years with little positive result.  Only a new Council, designed anew, can be up to the enormous tasks that the Summit will assign.

Europe and many African countries also want to upgrade the present UN Environment Programme to be a specialised UN agency (like the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation).  They argue that the present mandate of UNEP is too weak and narrow in scope to address the many environmental problems.

But countries like the United States and Russia have made known their opposition to setting up a new UN entity that entails more costs for member states like themselves.  Many developing countries would also rather enlarge the authority and institution of sustainable development rather than just the environment.

So the ultimate agreement may be to strengthen the mandate and governance of UNEP and its work, but not to convert it to a specialised agency.

A fourth major issue that has emerged in the March 2012 negotiations is the “means of implementation”, usually defined as the provision of finance and technology to developing countries to enable them to undertake sustainable development activities.  In the original Rio Summit of 1992, this was also a major area of negotiations.  The final understanding was that developed countries commit to finance and technology transfers to developing countries in recognition of their historical responsibilities and their higher economic level.  

At and since the 1992 Summit, developing countries have made the implementation of this commitment a centre piece of their proposals for the framework of sustainable development and environment agreements, including at the CSD, and the climate and biodiversity conventions.

During the March negotiations, the G77 and China have made a re-commitment by the developed countries to providing the means of implementation their major demand. However, this time there has been visible resistance from developed countries.  Most of the G77 and China proposed text on this issue has been rejected by the developed

countries, to the great disappointment of the developing countries.  Thus, the fight over the means of implementation issue is likely to be another major bone of contention on the road to Rio 2012.