Ripples of change from Rio

Twenty years on from the first Earth Summit, Kirsty Schneeberger looks at the potential for positive outcomes at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, taking place 20-22 June 2012

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, defined the sustainable development agenda of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. It catalysed a revolutionary approach to how we define and apply the concept of sustainable development, through the development of Agenda 21, for instance – the UN’s blueprint for global, national and local governmental action on environmental issues.

But more than that, it shifted the mindset of a whole generation of political leaders, leading activists, practitioners and academics in the field, who were all no doubt inspired in ways that cannot be quantified nor easily traced through the plethora of initiatives and projects that have flourished since.

Yet there is a temptation to too readily fixate on the immediate outcomes of such international conferences and the phrasing of the documents produced. Too often the bigger picture and non-measurable activities that will flourish as a result of a conference are lost among the conversations about square brackets and paragraphs. Not only does this risk us losing sight of the wood for the trees; it means that we cannot see the story for the words. The last 40 years have shown us that many impressive documents, if not matched with a functional means by which they can be transposed into national and local level activities on the ground, can remain only words.

Positive policies at Rio+20

There are many interesting proposals on the table that have gained momentum and support in recent months and will hopefully make it through the negotiations:

  • Phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies and redirecting money into clean and renewable energy technologies.

  • Defining a new set of ‘global development goals’ that would focus on areas such as water, energy, food, green skills and jobs.

  • Reforming the mechanisms through which the UN deals withsustainable development, to create a more holistic approach. This could include establishing a new high-level body, such as a Sustainable Development Council.

  • A ‘global policy framework’ on corporate social responsibility and reporting.

  • Establishingsystems of national accounting for natural capital to provide ways for countries to better monitor the safeguarding of their natural resources.

  • Establishing aUN High Commissioner for Future Generations to consider the impact that intergovernmental decisions will have on future generations.

  • A recognition ofplanetary boundaries and the need to maintain a safe and just operating space for humanity and nature to thrive.

If successful, these and other proposals would go a long way towards ensuring that sustainability is applied on the ground as the cornerstone of development. That said, it is not the only thing that can be achieved in Rio.

People’s Summit

A People’s Summit taking place in Rio, parallel to the UN proceedings, will bring together thousands of organisations, individuals, activists and visionaries who will share information on the approaches that they are taking to implement sustainable development. A prominent proposal being considered in this forum is the potential for a law of ecocide, which would make large-scale environmental destruction a fifth international crime against peace.

There are other parallel conferences for the business community, as well as ‘dialogue days’ that the Brazilian government is hosting as a way to bring the voices of the people to the UN process and bridge the gap that too often develops between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’.

And even still, in between these events and meetings and shows, there will be hundreds of informal gatherings and connections that are made, providing rich and fertile ground for idea development and capacity-building between peers. The stories that will blossom and grow out of Rio+20, perhaps not even maturing in the next 20 years, each have the potential to help us live within the planet’s natural limits.

These are the real outcomes of Rio+20 that should excite us and define the summit itself. And hopefully when asking questions about Rio, we can keep in mind a longer-term perspective, knowing that only time will tell what the true ripple effect will be.