The forthcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 - 'Rio + 20' - will take place 20 years after the Earth Summit (also in Rio) and 25 years after the Brundtland Commission which set out the principles of sustainable development. The need for action is even more pressing and more urgent than it was in 1992. Approaching environmental 'planetary boundaries' will limit our ability to use natural resources to support further growth and already require immediate action to avoid further damage to our planet.
There are two main themes for the Rio+20 Conference: a green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development. The UN has called for suggested text for a 'zero-draft' of an outcomes document to be agreed at the Conference, to be submitted by 1 November 2011. In publishing this report before that deadline, we have two aims: to encourage wide-ranging engagement in the Rio+20 process and raising the level of debate within the country, and seeking to influence the Government's approach to Rio+20.
There has been inadequate progress on sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit. There is still far to travel, and approaching environmental 'planetary boundaries' make the task more urgent than ever. The Millennium Development Goals have helped shape aid programmes over the last decade, including the UK's, but globally their targets appear likely to be missed by their 2015 end-date. Nor have they fully captured the challenges facing sustainability. The Government should support work aimed at launching new 'Goals' - Sustainability Goals and Consumption Goals - at Rio+20, to shift the effort towards the sustainable development and sustainable consumption contributions that the UK and other developed countries now need to make.
There is currently no common definition of a green economy, although the UN envisage it encompassing a number of 'tracks', including 'getting prices right' (valuing natural resources), 'ecological tax reform' and 'social policies'. The Government should work to ensure that green economy principles agreed at Rio are comprehensive, ensuring a fair as well as green economy.
The objectives of a green economy are more likely to be met if the private sector is committed to them. The Government will need to involve business in shaping the agenda and the outcomes that Rio+20 ought to produce. Some companies, however, will need to be incentivised to act sustainably, and the Government should push for Rio+20 to endorse measures which could provide such incentives, including taxation and ecosystem valuation, and to agree a mandatory regime for sustainability reporting by companies.
The UN envisages possible changes in its organisations responsible for sustainable development and their remits. The Government's line, that we should see how the existing UN machinery might be strengthened before creating new bodies is contemplated, is a reasonable one to take. But the Government should not insist on this if to do so would prevent agreement on more important issues at Rio+20.
Rio+20 should be seen as a starting point for important new initiatives, rather than a sign-off point. The Government should focus its input to Rio+20 on its priorities for the Conference, in areas that it can particularly champion, such as ecosystems valuation or sustainable development indicators.
A danger is that the current financial crisis will tempt countries to aim for a 'slightly greened business as usual' at Rio, reflecting an imperative for economic growth. The Government should resist any moves to use the financial situation to dilute the extent of the environmental and social aspects of the green economy.
A binding agreement or treaty is not currently on the table at Rio+20. Useful outcomes are still possible, however, including showcasing and sharing examples of best practice. A perhaps less visible, but just as vital, product of the Rio+20 process will be the engagement and discussion amongst civil society groups, businesses and individuals about the need for a renewed commitment to sustainable development and a wider understanding of the changes that that entails for all countries and communities. That engagement with organisations, businesses and the public needs to be a process, rather than a one-off discussion at the Conference itself, beginning now and extending beyond next June. That process needs the Government, starting now, to get the message across about the global sustainable development crisis the world faces. It is clear that to energise Rio+20, two decades after the original Earth Summit, a new generation needs to be enthused about the need for action and the difference that they can make.
The Prime Minister should attend the Conference in June, and make an announcement to that effect as early as possible, to demonstrate the Government's commitment to the aims of Rio+20, within the UK and beyond. The Government should also appoint a 'special envoy' at the earliest opportunity, charged with bringing together Government thinking on the Rio+20 agenda from across departments but also acting as a focal point for discussion with and between civil society groups, schools, businesses and individuals. The envoy should generate momentum and awareness ahead of the Conference, and then to be the focal point for carrying forward its outcomes afterwards.