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From Rio to Rio+20: Twenty years of sustainable development

~Saleemul Huq

The Rio+20 Summit was just held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to mark twenty years since the first Earth Summit, also held in the same city in June 1992. Having attended the first summit twenty years ago as well as the recent Rio+20 meeting and also having worked on the issue of sustainable development over the last two decades, I will offer below some reflections on what has (and has not) been achieved.

Earth Summit 1992:

The first Earth Summit produced four significant outputs:

* The Rio Principles which laid down the main principles regarding sustainable development;

* The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which is a treaty for dealing with climate change;

* The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) which is a treaty to deal with loss of biodiversity;

* Agenda 21 which was a non-binding blue-print for nations and communities to develop their own sustainable development pathways.

The follow-up in terms of implementing these outcomes for the two UN Conventions (UNFCCC and CBD) set up their own processes to review and update the agreements with regular Conferences of Parties (COP) while the forum for reviewing Agenda 21 was the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) which meets annually in New York.

Over the last two decades the UNFCCC has acquired the greatest traction politically with the Kyoto Protocol agreed at the third COP held in Japan in 1997. However, in recent years the momentum has run out of steam and progress towards a post-Kyoto Protocol is taking longer than anticipated.

The CBD and CSD have also continued to meet regularly and some further actions have been agreed at the global level, especially on renewable energy.

While progress at global level had not been great, national level activities have grown considerably with environment protection laws being enacted and implemented in all countries.

However, it must be admitted that over the last two decades since the optimism of the Earth Summit, progress has been much slower than had been anticipated either at the global or the national level.

This was therefore, the back drop to the Rio+20 meeting two decades later.

The outcome document from Rio+20 is called "The Future We Want," which is nearly fifty pages long with 283 paragraphs covering many issues. While there was agreement reached on the document it remains a rather weak one with mainly aspirations rather than decisions, which reflects the reluctance of the rich countries, in these economically strained times, to agree to any concrete actions.

Nevertheless the two main outcomes have some positive ways forward which are summarised below:

1. Sustainable Development Goals:

The main agreement achieved was to set up a process to be led by the UN Secretary General to develop a set of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the UN General Assembly meeting in 2015. The process of developing these SDGs will involve government as well as experts and civil society.

2. Green development:

On this issue (which is variously termed green development, green growth and green economy) there was less clear consensus, as the term is still not universally accepted. However, the main decision was to allow and enable countries to put in place their own nationally-driven processes to towards a greener development pathway. This will be a bottom-up rather than top-down process to be defined the each country itself.

Role of civil society in Rio:
There were over 40,000 people from all over the world in Rio who participated in many side events organised by different groups including NGOs, youth, cities, scientists, women's groups and indigenous peoples. Many of these events had much more positive energy than the official government-led negotiations as they were gatherings of people who were actually practicing sustainable development in their respective countries and communities. These were by far the more interesting and positive outcomes of the Rio+20 meeting.

Bangladesh's role:
Bangladesh was well represented both by government officials, led by the minister for environment and forests as well as large number of civil society representatives. The Bangladesh government organised an important meeting of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), which Bangladesh currently leads. The meeting was chaired by the foreign secretary of Bangladesh and addressed by ministers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Cost Rica. The next meeting of the CVF will be hosted by Costa Rica in November 2012 and this group is attracting greater attention as a proactive group of developing countries who are leading the way on climate resilient and low carbon development pathways, which are the basis for green development pathways.

My conclusion from Rio+20 is one of general disappointment at the lack of global ambition to deal with the unsustainable development pathways that the world is now pursuing. However, I feel that even if the time is not yet right to address these issues at the global level, there is plenty of opportunity for countries, communities and activists to continue to take the issue forward at the national and local levels, while some countries (such as the CVF) can form "coalitions of the willing" to take things forward, even in the absence of a global consensus yet.

The writer is Senior Fellow at the London based International Institute for Environment and Development and Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development based at the Independent University, Bangladesh.

E-mail: Saleemul.huq@iied.org

 Click to view this article to the publisher's website From Rio to Rio+20: Twenty years of sustainable development


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