The St Martin-in-the-Fields seminar on the Rio+20 agenda - Environmental Audit Committee Contents


1. In October 2011 we published a report on the preparations for the forthcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012—the 'Rio+20' Summit.[1] The Summit comes 20 years after the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and 25 years after the Brundtland Commission's report which established the concept of sustainable development in terms of its three pillars—economic, social and environmental—and inter-generational equity.

2. The objectives set by the UN for the Rio+20 Summit 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.[2]

It will have two main themes:

  • 'a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication'; and
  • 'the institutional framework for sustainable development'.[3]

3. Our report in October examined the rate of global progress on sustainable development, the building blocks needed for a 'green economy' (green taxes, valuing environmental capital, social policies and the role of the private sector), prospective reforms of the UN organisational structures for sustainable development and the Government's approach for securing beneficial outcomes at the Summit. The main points in our report were:

  • The need for action was 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.
  • The Government should support work aimed at launching new Sustainability Goals and Consumption Goals at Rio+20, to reflect the sustainable development and sustainable consumption contributions that the UK and other developed countries in particular now need to make.
  • The 'green economy' principles agreed at Rio should ensure a fair economy.
  • Private sector businesses had a vital role in the green economy, some of which would need to be incentivised to act sustainably through taxation and ecosystem valuation and a mandatory regime for companies' sustainability reporting.
  • Rio+20 needed to be a starting point for important new initiatives, rather than a sign-off point, with the Government focusing its input to the Summit on areas that it could particularly champion, such as ecosystems valuation or sustainable development indicators.
  • The Government should resist any moves by countries at the Summit to use the current difficult fiscal situation to dilute the extent of the environmental and social aspects of the green economy.
  • Engagement and discussion amongst civil society groups, businesses and individuals was needed for a renewed commitment to sustainable development and a wider understanding of the changes that that entailed for all countries and communities. The Government needed 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;[4]
  • Such engagement with organisations, businesses and the public needed to be a process, rather than a one-off discussion at the Summit, beginning straight away and extending beyond the Summit in June. Two decades after the original Summit, a new generation needed to be enthused about the need for action and the difference that they could make.
  • If the Prime Minister attended the Summit, it would demonstrate the Government's commitment to the aims of Rio+20, within the UK and beyond. A 'special envoy' could be appointed 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.

4. Since our report, there have been a number of developments:

  • The publication in January 2012 of a UN 'zero-draft' of an outcomes document, The future we want, to be agreed at the Summit.[5]
  • The publication of the report of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, Resilient people, resilient planet: A future worth choosing, which had been charged by the UN Secretary General with formulating a 'new development paradigm' to inform the deliberations at Rio+20.[6]
  • A presentation of the Government's perspectives on Rio+20 by the Secretary of State for the Environment at the Guildhall, London, in February 2012.[7]
  • A debate in the House on our October 2011 report on preparations for the Summit.[8]
  • The announcement in March 2012 that the Deputy Prime Minister (rather than the Prime Minister) would attend the Summit in June.[9]
  • A meeting of chairmen of EU member state parliamentary environment committees, organised by the Danish government as part of its Presidency of the EU. Our Committee was represented by our chair. The presentations emphasised the need for the EU to show leadership to secure a paradigm change from the Rio+20 negotiations, the urgency of follow up actions being matched by delivery of policies on resource efficiency and sustainable energy for all, and the important contribution needed by business. The meeting also discussed a draft international protocol from GLOBE for legislators to discuss and agree at a conference before Rio+20: To commit to strengthen the legislative response in parliaments to deliver the Rio objectives, and to develop a plan to more effectively scrutinise individual governments on their Rio commitments and their progress in the delivery of Rio+20 outcomes.

5. We also published on 21 May our report on a Green Economy,[10] in which we concluded that:

Current patterns of growth and development are unsustainable and much focus has been placed on developing a green economy to address this challenge—protecting the planet, creating jobs and securing energy supplies. International efforts to deliver a step-change on this agenda will be taken forward by the Rio+20 Summit, where world leaders will come together to set out a clear vision of the green economy and agree a framework for action. For the Government to be a credible voice at the Summit, it must ensure that it has put in place a strong domestic policy framework to drive the transition to a green economy in the UK.

The Government has set out its approach on a green economy in Enabling the Transition to a Green Economy. However, it is a missed opportunity to show global leadership on this area at a crucial time in the run-up to the Rio Summit. It does not set out a new, comprehensive or strategic approach for a green economy with targets to assess progress, but rather lists existing policies. It lacks a long-term vision of a green economy, and it is not the 'roadmap' to get us there that was earlier promised. The definition adopted by the Government crucially does not address all three interdependent pillars of sustainable development, including the social pillar, well-being and environmental limits.[11]

6. We intend to examine the outcomes of the Rio+20 Summit, and the action that the UK will need to take, later in the year. That will provide an opportunity to review the way the Government approached the Summit and its role there. Key issues to be examined will be the extent to which the Government shows leadership at the Summit on the green economy agenda, and subsequently whether the Government revisits Enabling the Transition to reflect the outcomes of the Summit.

1   Preparations for the Rio+20 Summit, Eighth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1026. Back

2   UN Rio+20 website ( Back

3   UN Resolution 64/236. Back

4 Back

5  Back

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

7 Back

8   HC Deb 28 February 2012, c221-261 Back

9   Speech by Deputy Prime Minister at Liberal Democrat spring conference, 11 March 2012 Back

10   Twelfth Report of Session 2010-12, A Green Economy, HC 1025 Back

11   A Green Economy, HC 1025, op cit, Summary Back

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Prepared 11 June 2012