Preparations for the Rio +20 Summit - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

1  Background

Sustainable development summits

1. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, commonly referred to as the Earth Summit, saw the adoption of a number of crucial agreements, including the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, and landmark Conventions on desertification, biological diversity and climate change. It followed the 1987 Brundtland Commission report,[1] which established the concept of sustainable development in terms of three pillars - economic, social and environmental - and inter-generational equity. After the 1992 Conference came the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development.[2] The forthcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 - 'Rio + 20' - comes 20 years after the pivotal Rio Summit, and 25 years after the Brundtland Commission.

The aims and themes of Rio+20

2. The objectives set by the UN for the Rio+20 Conference are:

    To secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assessing the progress to date and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges.[3]

The UN is calling for contributions ahead of the Conference on:

    … sectoral priorities (eg. energy, food security and sustainable agriculture, technology transfer, water, oceans, sustainable urbanization, sustainable consumption and production, natural disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation, biodiversity, etc.) and sectoral initiatives that contribute to integrate the three pillars of sustainable development that could be launched and endorsed at Rio+20.[4]

3. There are two main themes for the Conference:

  • 'a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication'; and
  • 'the institutional framework for sustainable development'.[5]

On the green economy theme, the Conference organisers are calling for views on:

    ... how a green economy can be a means to achieve sustainable development in its three dimensions, and poverty eradication; what is its potential added value; experience to date, including what has worked and how to build upon success, what are the challenges and opportunities and how to address the challenges and seize opportunities, and possible elements of an agreement in an outcome document on a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

And on the theme of the institutional framework for sustainable development:

    ... priorities and proposals for strengthening individual pillars of sustainable development, as well as those for strengthening integration of the three pillars, at multiple levels - local, national, regional and international.[6]

The Rio+20 process

4. The UN process leading up to Rio+20 extends over a two year period:
DatesEvents Purpose
May 20101st Preparatory Committee Meeting Request for inputs from stakeholders to the objective and themes of Conference.
January 2011First inter-sessional meeting Review of inputs from stakeholders on the objective and themes.
March 20112nd Preparatory Committee Meeting Further review of inputs from stakeholders on the objective and themes.
Sept-Dec 2011Regional preparatory meetings
1 Nov 2011Deadline for submission of 'zero-draft' of Rio outcome document
December 2011Second inter-sessional meeting Review of inputs from stakeholders for the 'zero-draft' of an outcomes document.
Jan-Feb 2012UN Commission on Sustainable Development meetings Informal consultation, then negotiation, on the zero-draft document.
March 2012Third inter-sessional meeting Negotiation of zero-draft document.
Mch-Apl 2012UN Commission on Sustainable Development meetings Negotiation of zero-draft document.
May 20123rd Preparatory Committee Meeting Negotiation of zero-draft document.
June 2012Rio + 20 Conference

There are three key elements to the preparations for the Conference:

  • a call for suggested text for a 'zero-draft' of an outcomes document to be agreed at the Conference. Submissions are required by 1 November 2011, and a composite text will then be presented for negotiation in the run up to the Conference next June.
  • a survey questionnaire to gather countries' and NGOs' experiences and thoughts on the two key themes - a green economy and the institutional framework. The UN has already published a distillation of the results.[7]
  • a 'High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability', charged by the Secretary General with formulating a 'new development paradigm' ('a green economy which eradicates poverty, with sustainable consumption and production in a carbon-constrained world') to inform the deliberations at Rio+20.[8] The Panel is holding its fourth and final meeting in October 2011, and will present its report in January 2012.[9]

Our inquiry - building momentum for Rio+20

5. In undertaking this brief inquiry, we have two aims: (i) to encourage wide-ranging engagement in the Rio+20 process, raising the level of debate more generally, and (ii) flagging up the key issues likely to be under discussion at Rio next year, and to consider what the Government's approach should be in terms of seeking to influence those discussions and shape the EU's input. In publishing this report before the 1 November deadline for input to the 'zero-draft' of the Conference outcomes document, we hope to influence the Government's approach to Rio+20. However, perhaps more than with some of our other reports, our aim is also to highlight the issues for a much wider audience, to help people to begin to engage in the global debate about the direction mankind needs to take in an increasingly unsustainable world.

6. As we discuss below, a treaty is currently not on the table for Rio+20. We hope that the Conference will agree principles for a global green economy (paragraph 25) and will adopt new sustainable development and sustainable consumption 'Goals' (paragraph 24). But a perhaps less visible, but just as vital, product of the Rio+20 process will be the engagement and discussion amongst civil society groups, individuals and businesses 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. The European Environment Council's 'conclusions' of 10 October stress a need to promote public awareness raising activities,[10] but Stakeholder Forum, one of our witnesses, highlighted the current low level of public awareness which will need to be addressed in the months ahead.[11] That engagement with organisations, businesses and the public needs to be a process, rather than a one-off discussion at the Conference itself, that begins now and extends beyond next June. Governments and parliaments, including our own, need to play their part in encouraging and facilitating that engagement.

7. That process includes the Government, starting now, getting the message across about the global sustainable development crisis the world faces, including for example approaching environmental 'planetary boundaries' (paragraph 12). These will limit our ability to use natural resources to support further growth, and require urgent action to avoid further damage to our planet's ecosystems and resources. Our Chair joined a seminar for civil society groups hosted by the Secretary of State for the Environment earlier this month, which was attended by some groups seeking to engage young people in particular. 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. As the Foundation for Democracy & Sustainable Development put it, civil society involvement in Rio+20 is needed for 'sharing good practice and catalysing the next generation of political activism and social innovation for sustainable development'.[12] One way of engaging the next generation would be for Government, local authorities, businesses and others to involve children and schools in discussing Rio+20.

8. We intend to monitor the situation as we approach the 2012 Conference, once the UK's position (and that of the EU) has crystallised. We also intend in due course to examine the results of the Conference, and how the UK will be taking forward any agreements reached. This staged approach is similar to that followed by our predecessor Committee in 2002 and 2003 when it examined the Johannesburg Conference.[13]

9. Before we began our inquiry we had private briefings from Tariq Banuri (Director of the UN's Division for Sustainable Development), Defra officials, and others. Then, last month, we took oral evidence from the International Institute for Environment and Development, Oxfam, Stakeholder Forum and Defra officials. We also received written evidence from these and others. We are grateful to them all. We are also grateful to Farooq Ullah, our specialist adviser.[14]

1   Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 (known by the name of its Chair Gro Harlem Brundtland)  Back

2   A history of UN sustainable development conferences and other milestones is presented on the Rio+20 website (  Back

3   UN Rio+20 website ( Back

4   ibidBack

5   UN Resolution 64/236 Back

6   UN Rio+20 website ( Back

7   UN Rio+20 website (  Back

8   UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, Terms of reference, UN ( Back

9   Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability website, ibidBack

10   Rio+20: towards achieving sustainable development by greening the economy and improving governance - Council conclusions, EU Council, 10 October 2011, para 16  Back

11   Ev 33, para 6.3 Back

12   Ev w19, para c19.7 Back

13   Environmental Audit Committee, Third Report of Session 2001-02, UK preparations for the world summit on sustainable development, HC 616; Second Report of Session 2002-03, Johannesburg and back: The world summit on sustainable development- Committee delegation report on proceedings, HC 169; Twelfth Report of Session 2002-03, World summit on sustainable development - from rhetoric to reality, HC 98 Back

14   Farooq Ullah declared interests: on 30 March 2011as a member of staff of the Sustainable Development Commission, member of Brighter Future (a climate change action group) and Alliance for Future Generations (a group which seeks to bring long-term thinking into public policy); and on 12 October 2011 as Head of Policy and Advocacy at Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 26 October 2011