HC 172 Outcomes of the UN Rio +20 Earth Summit

Written evidence submitted by the International Institute for Environment
and Development

IIED welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the EAC inquiry into the outcomes of the Rio +20 Summit and priorities for future UK Government action. IIED was closely involved in the Summit process (see information on the ‘Fair Ideas’ Conference we organised [1] and we are part of the International Research Forum on a post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda (IRF), a consortium of sustainable development think tanks charged by the UN Secretariat with developing a framework for the proposed SD Goals [2] . IIED conducts research on a wide range of SD issues and hosts the Green Economy Coalition (GEC), which aims to build understanding and engagement in efforts to shift mainstream economic models towards equity and sustainability. IRF and GEC will both focus closely on follow-up to the Rio Summit over the coming year.

1. How well the Rio declaration - ‘The Future We Want’ - matched the actions that were needed.

IIED remains strongly committed to multilateral institutions and processes, but one general reflection is that the Summit process failed to engage a wide audience around the world and significantly spur commitment and action. While trends showing resource depletion, increasing poverty and deprivation, and systemic threats would all seem to necessitate attention at the very highest levels of government and other sectors, the level of participation from heads of government and other leading figures was very low.

The Summit also failed to establish sustainable development as the framework for action at all levels if the world is to address multiple, overlapping crises and areas of uncertainty. Collectively we have missed a major opportunity to achieve this transition and one major question for organisations which focus on sustainable development is how best to learn from this experience and do things differently in future. In this context we welcome the emphasis in the Inquiry Terms of Reference on future priorities and actions.

There are many reasons for these shortcomings, and lessons for future global summits. As its name suggests, Rio +20 was ‘anniversary driven’, and there was too much emphasis on the legacy from 1992 and not enough on articulating an agenda that responded to the key challenges of 2012. We lacked a strong and independent analytical framework to underpin deliberations, where 20 years ago discussion was based on the results of 4 years work of the Brundtland Commission (the World Commission on Environment and Development). The ‘green economy’ concept was poorly explained and introduced, and provoked suspicion and hostility where it could have generated enthusiasm and momentum. Lessons have not been learnt sufficiently from the failure to achieve strong multilateral agreement at the Copenhagen UNFCCC meeting in 2009, and the Brazilian government’s rather cynical eleventh hour ‘take it or leave it’ text for the outcome document provided a short-term diplomatic solution but not a viable long term basis for shared action and commitment.

But beneath this tale of the declining significance of global diplomacy, things are changing. It's true that most governments are still represented by environment or development ministers, while their counterparts from finance, planning, and business are few and far between. By contrast, heads of corporations such as Unilever, Puma, and the biggest Brazilian companies were ubiquitous in Rio, some bullishly asserting that if governments won't take steps to fix global problems then they will step into the gap.

Beyond this, there is growing evidence that the principles of sustainable development are now embedded in diverse contexts around the world, and are becoming more tangible through innovations in policy and practice. Many of these were showcased in the margins of the summit, and provided a welcome contrast to the inertia of the official process. But a widespread concern voiced across different contexts was that these "glimpses of sustainability" are of limited value if they don't lead to transformation of the mainstream. As the Head of the UN Environment Programme Achim Steiner put it: "We can't claim on any major indicators that we've turned the corner, but underneath the global meta-level of analysis there is extraordinary innovation and practice. We're inventing a million times the different solutions, but unless we can create the structures and systems to promote change, we will remain the laboratories and test grounds to show what could be done."

2. The role played by the UK Government in the run up to, and during, the Summit

The UK Government had an unusually low profile through the Summit preparations and during the event. Its input at the ‘zero draft’ stage in late 2011 had no innovative ideas or ambitious proposals, and was widely interpreted as indicating low levels of commitment to the Summit process. It was notable that the submission included the report on the EAC inquiry into Green Economy (which had a primarily domestic, UK focus) but not the inquiry into the Summit.

There was very constructive and positive input from the UK on natural wealth accounting and natural capital concepts, building on domestic initiatives involving a variety of UK actors.

UK Government participation in global fora on sustainable development continues to be dominated by officials from DEFRA and (to a lesser extent) DECC and DFID. It was disappointing (of course) that the Prime Minister was not present, and also that the Treasury and DFID were not more engaged. In the event, and because many other governments took a similar stance, the limited impact of the Summit became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – but it had potential to be much more significant if leadership and ambition from key governments had been evident from the outset.

3. What role the UK Government should now play internationally in taking forward the Rio agenda, including on the Sustainable Development Goals and through the Prime Minister’s co-chairmanship of the UN Secretary-General’s ‘High-level Panel of Eminent Persons to advise on planning for post-2015’.

The world is grappling with four linked crises:

· Social – Deprivation and lack of opportunity for more than a billion people, plus growing inequality between and within countries and problems of wellbeing everywhere.

· Environmental – Degradation of natural assets, scarcity, and competition over access to finite natural resources, combined with increasing instability in ecological systems, pose growing difficulties for all countries. Rapid increases in resource consumption almost everywhere are accelerating these trends.

· Economic – The instability and fragility of financial systems have been repeatedly exposed over the past few years, while the majority are excluded from the benefits of economic growth.

· Governance – Accountability of key institutions and processes to affected people is often weak, and trust in their effectiveness and prioritisation is low in many contexts.

While it is developed countries that are experiencing most direct impacts of the financial crisis today, these will have on-going and growing repercussions on prospects for growth and increased wellbeing everywhere. A globally agreed set of Sustainable Development Goals has the potential to act as the compass to navigate these crises-guiding the broad direction for multilateral co-operation while helping to legitimise and amplify the multiplicity of local to global initiatives that are essential to realise change. As Paula Caballero of the Colombian government has put it during ‘Fair Ideas’, "SDGs should help in tackling the complex linkages between the environmental, social, and financial crises, recognising that poverty eradication and environmental stability should be at the heart of each distinct goal."

How best to realise an effective set of goals is contentious. The UK Government can play an important role in helping to shape them through a number of channels, including the ‘High Level Panel’ co-chaired by the Prime Minister. It will be extremely important at an early stage in the work of the Panel to clarify the relationship (and the distinctions) between a post-2015 framework for development assistance which builds on the Millennium Development Goals and the Millennium Declaration, and a new framework for sustainable development which applies to all countries equally. As a general reflection it might be good for governments to focus more on listening to other stakeholders over the coming years, and on supporting initiatives to give voice to other actors rather than dominating discourse as at present.

IIED believes that a number of cross-cutting themes should be built into the post-2015 framework for action:

A. More attention should be paid to innovation and new ways of doing things. This will be an essential factor in enabling us to live within the social and environmental "safe operating space" for humanity. This does not simply mean looking to large-scale, top-down, technological advancements. It also means heeding the small-scale social, political, and practical innovations made by individuals and communities using local or indigenous knowledge and experience.

B. Allowing poor people to design solutions that meet their current and future needs is key. But this reaches beyond innovation to include decision making. Involvement of poor and marginalised communities will require organisation and mobilisation-both of which are essential to get neglected voices heard in key decision-making arenas and ensure that resulting policy and practice address the priorities of local people.

C. Where local participation and decentralised governance have been implemented, they have usually proved their worth. In Brazil, local government is playing a key role in addressing waste management and water supply. There are a whole range of models that can work to deliver services to poor communities, but all depend on understanding the local context and ensuring effective local participation.

D. The SDGs can provide the vehicle for more realistic valuation of natural resources. Putting a price tag on natural resources is an important way of ensuring that they are looked after and sustainably managed. This is what initiatives such as WAVES [Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services] are trying to do: using environmental accounting to integrate natural resources into national accounts and development planning. There is much to learn in this regard from established payments for ecosystem services schemes, such as the one in Costa Rica, which has now been up and running for 15 years.

E. Perhaps the most important reflection on the SDGs is that they must stimulate collaboration. We all face trade-offs in the move toward sustainable development: countries, companies, communities, and individuals alike will have to make difficult decisions that are expensive, go beyond business as usual, and involve sacrifices. Making these decisions cannot be the responsibility of one government or ministry alone. Sustainable development policy and practice is marked by vested interests and hot disputes; and negotiations tend to be competitive, rather than collaborative. Until finance and environment ministries are included in development decisions, and vice versa, we will continue to fight old battles, without gaining ground. We urgently need a new form of global debate and negotiation.

4. How well the UK Government’s policies and initiatives match the commitments and calls-for-action set out in ‘The Future We Want’ declaration, the areas in which the Government has more to do, and where the Government’s priorities should lie.

As set out above, ‘The Future We Want’ is itself a relatively weak document and does not adequately articulate the scale of the challenge, the means by which progress can be achieved or the obligation for change by different actors. For developed countries, including the UK, there should be a stark message: Our footprint is too large in a crowded world, so we must reduce consumption and decouple growth from resource use. For developing countries, the discussion is more about how to chart the next 20 years of economic growth and development in ways that look very different from 20th century models. Green growth must be overtly inclusive, or it will always arouse suspicions: It has tended to be viewed by developing countries as an external agenda, promoted by Northern or international organisations in high-tech, high-cost terms.

Current UK policy is weak and incoherent in its attention to these issues. We are still hostage to vested interests, short termism and lack of political leadership. As a result, although lip service is paid to the significance of sustainability this very seldom translates into far-sighted and difficult political decisions and actions.

IIED welcomes the UK’s continuing commitment to maintain current levels of aid spending, and also innovative initiatives such as creation of the Natural Capital Committee to put natural capital at the heart of economic thinking. But we remain concerned that these are still isolated examples and have limited impact on the mainstream of politics and our economy and society.

5. What part greater informed public debate and wider engagement with the Rio issues needs to play.

Wider engagement and involvement of people around the world in the sustainability agenda are clearly vital if significant progress is to be achieved. We believe that an ambitious set of SD Goals could play an important role in this respect. They should set out the need for major change and give people the means to track progress and assess performance at all levels of governance.

We also believe there’s an urgent need for a new narrative or discourse on development assistance, that responds to the rapid changes already evident around the world. This should make the case for continuation of aid as a key element in building stability and resilience to rapid and unpredictable change. It should learn from successful models for delivery of funding and strengthen accountability downwards to empower the intended beneficiaries of aid.

The flip side of this analysis is to recognise the key drivers of economic, social and environmental volatility around the world – which are predominantly the responsibility of richer countries and people.

An agenda for change has to encompass both of these dimensions if it is to be credible and useful. The High-level Panel which the Prime Minister will co-chair has potential to make a major contribution to this new narrative and create a basis for much wider public understanding and commitment to sustainable development.

29 August 2012


[1] http://www.iied.org/fair-ideas-sharing-solutions-for-sustainable-planet

[2] Current consortium members are: Stockholm Environment Institute (Sweden); Development Alternatives (India); Institute for Global Environmental Studies (Japan); World Resources Institute (USA); IIED and ODI (UK). Efforts are underway to expand involvement of research institutes from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Prepared 14th September 2012