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.
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
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.
The principles are 'general guides to action rather than detailed
rules'. 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.
47. Stakeholder Forum believed that a binding agreement
or treaty should not be the measure of success of Rio+20.
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.
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.
Stakeholder Forum and others emphasised the importance of Rio+20
as an 'ideas fest';
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
48. IIED cautioned against seeking even a 'consensus
text' if that reflected the lowest common denominator.
IIED envisaged Rio+20 allowing 'coalitions of the willing' to
agree on principles and tools without needing unanimous international
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.
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.
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
- identifying specific economic sectors in which
the UK could lead on initiatives; and
- the UK's position on institutional reform.
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.
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
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.
Much of the agenda around population growth is well-understood,
addressing women's education, health and rights.
But it is also about learning to deal with greater urbanisation
and consequences for rural agricultural economies.
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
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.
Felix Dodds suggested biodiversity and urbanisation.
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.
52. There is a danger that too much is expected of
Rio+20that it will make a significant difference on a wide
range of issuesand 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
the combination of different stresses on different systems, which
we don't have simple answers to.
53. A further danger is that the current financial
crisis will tempt countries to aim for a 'slightly greened business
as usual'. Stakeholder
Forum expects the transition to sustainable green economies will
need 'very large sums' of global investment flows.
Defra officials told us that 'growth is essential for all countries,
both developed and developing'
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'. 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
Defra witnesses indicated that part of the Government's approach
could be to showcase areas being developed in the UK.
The UK is in a good position to show leadership because of its
record on aid, climate change and research on food security.
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
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).
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.
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.
Such a new approach should be considered too by the UN for its
own awareness-raising work; before, during and after the Conference
56. In the international arena, the Environment Secretary
has visited Brazil to discuss the Conference.
She also contributed to European Environment Council 'conclusions'
agreed on 10 October,
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
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.
Derek Osborn of Stakeholder Forum thought the June paper covered
... 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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
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
Ev w23 Back
Ev w67; Ev w29 Back
Ev w29, para 21 Back
Ev w67 Back
Q 20 Back
Q 26 Back
Ev 22 Back
Q 22 Back
Ev 33 Back
Ev 22, para 5.1 Back
Ev 22 Back
ibid; Q9, Q21 [Derek Osborn] Back
Ev 38; Q 59 Back
Q 59 Back
Ev w33; Ev 27, para 11-14; Ev 33 Back
Rio+20: towards achieving sustainable development by greening
the economy and improving governance - Council conclusions,
EU Council, 10 October 2011, para 7 Back
Ev w59, para 3 Back
Q 10 Back
ibid; Ev w12 Back
Q 10 Back
Q 29 Back
Q 38 Back
Q 23 Back
Q 15 Back
Ev w19, para b8 Back
Ev 33, para 4.14 Back
Q 43 Back
Q 50 Back
Ev 22 Back
Q 45 Back
Q 15; Ev 27; Ev w33 Back
Ev w33, paras 24-25 Back
Ev w33 Back
Ev 38; Q 44; Prime Minister's letter to Felix Dodds (Stakeholder
Forum), 1 August 2011 Back
Ev 38; Q 44 Back
Ev w19, para c11 Back
Ev w33, para 21;and Ev w23 Back
Q 39 Back
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
Q 46 Back
Q 55 Back
Q 38 [Felix Dodds] Back
Q 20 [Derek Osborn] Back
Q 20 [Felix Dodds] Back
Prime Minister's letter to Felix Dodds (Stakeholder Forum), 1
August 2011 Back