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

5  Rio outcomes

46. Rio+20 is not expected to produce a binding agreement. Nevertheless, some witnesses wanted to see a legal framework for sustainable development, based on a treaty.[121] FDSD noted that the planetary boundaries (paragraph 12) provide potential yardsticks for ensuring that governments, and others, demonstrably consider the implications of their decisions for the planet. That could be the basis for a system of legal objectives and obligations, and potential recourse to the courts to enforce those obligations.[122] However, Dr Eloise Scotford of King's College London and the UK Environmental Law Association described for us in some detail the difficulty in formulating a legal definition of sustainable development. It might be possible to legislate that particular sustainable development principles are taken into account in decision-making, but not for the sustainable outcomes of that decision-making.[123] The principles are 'general guides to action rather than detailed rules'.[124] Dr Scotford explained that the Agenda 21 principles from 1992, and the Brundtland definition before that, are indicative of what sustainable development contains, not definitive in any legal sense. They provide a useful basis for agreements, but not for prescribing precise legally-challengeable outcomes.[125]

47. Stakeholder Forum believed that a binding agreement or treaty should not be the measure of success of Rio+20.[126] There were important differences between 1992 and 2012 which make it difficult for Rio+20 to produce the same ambition and binding agreement as twenty years ago:

    The first Rio took place after about five years of intensive international effort, sparked off by the Brundtland Commission, on first putting the sustainable development concept on the map, and then reacting to the emerging threat of climate change and biodiversity, so that by the time we got there in 1992 there was a climate change convention to sign … [and] a biodiversity convention to sign. We are not there this time. We have not had five years of preparation, we shall have had about two by the time we get there, so I think it is inevitable that, if the conference is a success, it will not be signing off on a lot of things but starting off some things that are meant to deliver.[127]

While several of our witnesses were doubtful that the Conference will produce a strong negotiated outcome, they believed that useful outcomes were still possible, particularly showcasing and sharing examples of best practice.[128] Stakeholder Forum and others emphasised the importance of Rio+20 as an 'ideas fest';[129] a forum for civil society groups to discuss sustainable development issues and share best practice, amongst themselves but also with politicians, with governments providing the frameworks to facilitate such dialogue.[130]

48. IIED cautioned against seeking even a 'consensus text' if that reflected the lowest common denominator.[131] IIED envisaged Rio+20 allowing 'coalitions of the willing' to agree on principles and tools without needing unanimous international agreement.[132] Many hope for a start to be made on a number of important fronts, in particular setting green economy principles and a framework to follow the MDGs which run until 2015.[133]

The Government's approach

49. The Environment Secretary is leading the Government's preparations for Rio+20, with Defra chairing an inter-departmental steering group which up to September had met twice.[134] In determining what the UK's position should be, the Steering Group is focusing on four areas:

  • a narrative for the green economy;
  • green economy themes on which the UK could propose specific measures;
  • identifying specific economic sectors in which the UK could lead on initiatives; and
  • the UK's position on institutional reform.[135]

We will in due course examine the outcome of the Government's work in these areas.

50. Several groups have between them raised a wide range of important themes that they consider need to be covered at Rio+20, in addition to the agreed themes of the green economy and institutional governance — food security, water security, energy security, protection of the arctic and the oceans.[136] The European Environment Council's 'conclusions' of 10 October calls for Rio+20 to 'promote global cooperative action' in the water, food, fisheries, forestry, marine environment and chemical sectors.[137] Many of these are closely inter-twined issues, as for example building secure and sustainable supplies of food and energy will help conserve water, maintain stocks of natural resources and reduce climate change and its impacts. These may feature in the Conference conclusions. Another issue, less likely to feature, however, is the growing global population which underpins many of the poverty-reduction and resource consumption issues. The Population and Sustainability Network wanted the Conference to address the link between 'population dynamics' and sustainable development, given the expected increase in population from 7 billion to 10 billion by the end of the century.[138] Much of the agenda around population growth is well-understood, addressing women's education, health and rights.[139] But it is also about learning to deal with greater urbanisation and consequences for rural agricultural economies.[140] As Tom Bigg of IIED explained, however, the population growth issue has been difficult to deal with at previous UN conferences and the actions required are not readily amenable to multinational negotiation.[141]

51. From a UK perspective, the Government should focus its efforts on working up its input to Rio+20, not on global population growth, but on a narrower but important list of priorities for the Conference, that they can particularly champion.[142] Felix Dodds suggested biodiversity and urbanisation.[143] Others, food sustainability, given the UK's 'Foresight' work in that area. Governments, more generally, ought to be focused on the issues where they can deliver: for example strengthened international governance, setting new Sustainable Development Goal targets to follow the MDGs, setting out principles for the green economy, and sustainability reporting for companies and others.[144]

52. There is a danger that too much is expected of Rio+20—that it will make a significant difference on a wide range of issues—and that when that broad-fronted progress fails to materialise that will be amplified in negative terms by a sceptical media. As Tom Bigg acknowledged:

    It is a sort of habitual thing for NGOs in these kinds of events on sustainable developments at global level to say "This is the last chance to save the earth." That was the slogan used 10 years ago and 20 years ago. I think our message is that is not the way to approach this event. The key challenge for this summit is there are difficult intractable issues that, not least, have come about because of the rapidity of change in the world; the rapid rise of the BRIC countries … ; and the combination of different stresses on different systems, which we don't have simple answers to.[145]

53. A further danger is that the current financial crisis will tempt countries to aim for a 'slightly greened business as usual'.[146] Stakeholder Forum expects the transition to sustainable green economies will need 'very large sums' of global investment flows.[147] Defra officials told us that 'growth is essential for all countries, both developed and developing'[148] and that with growth being 'at the top of everybody's agenda, that will shape our approach and will shape the sort of conference it is'.[149] Although they juxtaposed that with the need to live within resource scarcities and environmental challenges, it would be unrealistic to expect the imperative for economic growth not to be high on the agenda of many countries going to Rio+20, developing and developed. The Government should resist any moves there might be to use the financial situation to dilute the extent of the environmental and social aspects of the green economy discussed at Rio+20. Rather, it should emphasise at Rio+20 that environmental planetary boundaries will ultimately limit the room for growth.

54. Reflecting the different nature of the Rio+20 Conference, IIED want to see the Government promote the sharing of best practice from international aid programmes and joining 'coalitions of the willing' on, for example, valuing ecosystem services.[150] Our Defra witnesses indicated that part of the Government's approach could be to showcase areas being developed in the UK.[151] The UK is in a good position to show leadership because of its record on aid, climate change and research on food security.[152] Reflecting the commitment to tackle global warming demonstrated through the Climate Change Act, the Government could play a leading role internationally in championing planetary boundaries and other environmental limits. It could also use Rio+20 to showcase its work on valuing ecosystem services, including its recent National Ecosystem Assessment.[153]

55. Even focussing just on areas in which the UK can set the pace, the Government needs to show leadership on Rio+20. Within the UK, as we discussed above, it is important that civil society is engaged (paragraphs 6, 7).[154] The Environment Secretary met NGOs and civil society organisations earlier this month 'to share views and inform the UK position' in preparing for Rio+20.[155] That dialogue must continue in the run up to Rio+20, at the Conference itself and afterwards. But the Government now also needs to engage the public more generally, and in imaginative ways, to get support for the measures that need to be agreed at Rio and for their urgency. That could include using creative events and media, music and the arts, to complement more traditional communication, as illustrated by the 'Hard Rain Project' presentation.[156] Such a new approach should be considered too by the UN for its own awareness-raising work; before, during and after the Conference next year.

56. In the international arena, the Environment Secretary has visited Brazil to discuss the Conference.[157] She also contributed to European Environment Council 'conclusions' agreed on 10 October,[158] which took on board the European Commission's June 2011 paper on Rio+20. FDSD saw 'wishful thinking' in that earlier paper because it did not see slowing growth as a response to the need to protect the environment.[159] WWF wanted the paper to address the targets needed to follow the MDGs from 2015, and for the green economy to reflect more strongly the social dimension of sustainable development.[160] Derek Osborn of Stakeholder Forum thought the June paper covered the ground:

    ... but not in a very exciting way, not in a very dynamic way. It does not show very much political leadership. It reads more like a report card on the various things that are going on in the Commission and in the European framework that bear on sustainable development. It does not look like a document that has used the prospect of Rio to create something new.[161]

57. The European Environment Council's 'conclusions' of 10 October recommends that Rio+20 addresses many of the issues discussed in this report. It calls for the Conference to produce a Green Economy Roadmap which underlines the key role of the private sector (including through greater sustainability reporting) and adopt alternative indicators to GDP, while being a country-specific model which takes into account 'the demands of the poor'. It also calls for the Conference to bring forward reforms of the UN institutional framework, which would include the 'upgrading of the UN Environment Programme' and 'might' include revising the roles of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Economic & Social Council.[162] The Conclusions nevertheless do not constitute in our view the 'something new' that Derek Osborn was looking for. If the UK and EU are to show leadership on this agenda they need to set out how this vision of a green economy will be achieved.

58. Defra officials told us that the Government would keep open the option of producing its own position on Rio+20, separate from the EU's, depending on how closely the latter aligned with the UK's perspective. A multi-national paper would be more likely to be heeded than a single-country proposition.[163]

59. The Government needs to walk a fine line between, on the one hand, helping to put momentum behind the Conference and showing the UK's strong commitment to the Rio+20 agenda and, on the other hand, risking being seen as challenging the existing Southern agenda-setting for the Conference which might make consensus harder to achieve.[164] As our Stakeholder Forum witnesses explained:

    The tone that was around in Rio 20 years ago was rather that, "Oh, well, we in Europe know about sustainable development and we are trying to project it to the rest of the world." That will not wash this time. It will have to be a meeting of equals, some of whom are making more progress on some issues and some on others.[165]

    Southern countries and [emerging economies] are taking much more of a lead as equal partners in this and are setting a new agenda defined in their terms, so it is much less a question of greenies in Europe and the UK setting the agenda for the world, and more of equal partners.[166]

    This is the first of the summits that have been called for by developing countries; Stockholm, Rio and Johannesburg were all initiatives of developed countries. This came from Brazil and was supported by the G77, reluctantly supported by the European Union and the United States. [167]

Such risks of challenging the Southern countries' role on the Rio+20 agenda do not, and should not, prevent the Government taking an appropriately strong leadership role of its own. The Prime Minister, in responding to a letter from UK NGOs, notes that decisions are yet to be made about which ministers will go to Rio de Janeiro in June and whether the Government will designate a Rio+20 'special envoy'.[168] The Prime Minister should attend the Rio+20 Conference in June, and make an announcement to that effect as early as possible, to demonstrate the Government's commitment to the aims of the Conference, within the UK and beyond. And a 'special envoy' should be appointed 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 Conference, and then be the focal point for carrying forward its outcomes afterwards.

121   Ev w43 Back

122   Ev w23  Back

123   Ev w67; Ev w29  Back

124   Ev w29, para 21 Back

125   Ev w67 Back

126   Q 20 Back

127   Q 26 Back

128   Ev 22  Back

129   Q 22 Back

130   Ev 33 Back

131   Ev 22, para 5.1 Back

132   Ev 22  Back

133   ibid; Q9, Q21 [Derek Osborn] Back

134   Ev 38; Q 59 Back

135   Q 59 Back

136   Ev w33; Ev 27, para 11-14; Ev 33 Back

137   Rio+20: towards achieving sustainable development by greening the economy and improving governance - Council conclusions, EU Council, 10 October 2011, para 7 Back

138   Ev w59, para 3 Back

139   Q 10 Back

140   ibid; Ev w12  Back

141   Q 10 Back

142   Q 29  Back

143   Q 38 Back

144   Q 23 Back

145   Q 15 Back

146   Ev w19, para b8 Back

147   Ev 33, para 4.14 Back

148   Q 43 Back

149   Q 50 Back

150   Ev 22 Back

151   Q 45 Back

152   Q 15; Ev 27; Ev w33 Back

153   Ev w33, paras 24-25 Back

154   Ev w33 Back

155   Ev 38; Q 44; Prime Minister's letter to Felix Dodds (Stakeholder Forum), 1 August 2011  Back

156 Back

157   Ev 38; Q 44 Back

158   ibid  Back

159   Ev w19, para c11 Back

160   Ev w33, para 21;and Ev w23 Back

161   Q 39 Back

162   Rio+20: towards achieving sustainable development by greening the economy and improving governance - Council conclusions, EU Council, 10 October 2011, paras 4, 6-10, 12, 13 Back

163   Q 46 Back

164   Q 55  Back

165   Q 38 [Felix Dodds] Back

166   Q 20 [Derek Osborn] Back

167   Q 20 [Felix Dodds] Back

168   Prime Minister's letter to Felix Dodds (Stakeholder Forum), 1 August 2011 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 26 October 2011