Rio+20: will it green economies?

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro has been named one of the most important environmental summits ever held, spurring a wide-ranging framework for action to achieve sustainable development. Twenty years later, Rio de Janeiro will host a follow-up Conference on Sustainable Development, and a series of related activities. With little chance of matching the original event, is there any reason for optimism towards Rio+20?


Unimpressive scale

The 14-day Earth Summit in 1992 gathered the highest government representatives from more than 100 countries, including George H. Bush and other key leaders. Although the Brazilian government pledges to make the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20) the largest conference ever held by the UN, the event has been reduced to a modest three days. Hu Jintao, Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin are the only heads of state who have confirmed attendance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Obama are not scheduled to attend. Neither is the European Parliament, citing a huge increase in the estimated hotel costs.

The reason behind the absences lies at least partially in the event’s draft outcome document entitled “The Future we Want”. Widely criticized for lack of ambition and singular focus on the environment, it had originally comprised over 6,000 pages of submissions by member states, international and non-governmental organizations. The draft that outlines a global action plan has been negotiated for months by representatives of all 193 UN member states. One month before the event, however, the UN preparatory committee failed to reach consensus on the final version. This is all the more disheartening since, as noted by the UNCSD secretary general Sha Zukang, the objective was to start the conference with “at least 90 percent of the text ready, and only the most difficult 10% left to be negotiated there at the highest political levels. The impasse has been criticized by a coalition of NGOs led by Oxfam claiming the conference is “set to add almost nothing to global efforts to deliver sustainable development”.

By contrast, the 1992 Earth Summit spearheaded such efforts by tabling three groundbreaking conventions on climate change, biological diversity and desertification; as well as building a more sustainable and equitable regime through a comprehensive global action plan, Agenda 21, and the Rio Declaration. A number of follow-up mechanisms were put in place all at once, including the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

Notwithstanding the plethora of binding and non-binding agreements signed at Rio, the two decades that followed have, to say the very least, fallen short on commitments on GHG emissions, resource management, biodiversity, water quality and education for sustainability. The recent UN reviews of the implementation of Agenda 21 state the obvious fact that the past two decades have seen multiple crises only accelerate.

Unlike its predecessor, Rio+20 will almost certainly not yield further legally binding commitments. Perhaps an alternative based on voluntary, yet realistic commitments could prove effective in addressing global pressures and merit organising this major event. In response to international submissions,[1] the zero draft” zooms in on the concept of “green economy” which much like that of sustainable development depends entirely on the form of commitment that will eventually be taken.


Green economy - tool or alternative to sustainable development?

The green economy is one of the summit’s overarching themes, based on UNEP’s initiative guiding governments towards policies on- and investment in green technologies and practices. The zero draft defines it abstractly “as a decision-making framework to foster integrated consideration of the three pillars of sustainable development in all relevant domains of public and private decision-making”. In essence, it looks to ensure sound management of resources, enhance resource and energy efficiency, as well as promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, and a low-carbon economy.

While the draft claims to be framing the green economy in the context of sustainable development, at a conceptual level it is probably the closest to an alternative to the latter.[2] In that view, sustainable development as coined at the Earth Summit 20 years ago accepted economy as a force behind development and politics. The “sustainable” prerequisite, once appropriated by the mainstream capitalist economy and confronted with climate, poverty and economic crises, according to many has lost much of its potential for reconciling “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. An alternative, “green” economic model is expected to maintain growth while protecting ecosystems and contribute to poverty alleviation.

Most countries have rejected this view out of hand; stressing that green economy should be entirely anchored in sustainable development. The EU views green economy as a tool for pursuing the latter, since it best reconciles the objectives of environmental protection, economic growth, poverty eradication and social justice in this day and age. The G77 countries are much more suspicious of the concept, precisely because they question its adherence to the still topical sustainable development. During informal negotiations on the zero draft in New York last month, along with the U.S. and Canada, they objected to the framing of green economy as a roadmap. When seen as one of multiple tools for pursuing sustainable development, it should not be randomly prioritized by having its own roadmap, the opposing countries argue. Since some G77 members admitted not to know what green economy was and had never used this type of tool before, they further fear that it is not comprehensive enough to channel sustainable development, but merely its selected principles. 

The zero draft in its current form remains too imprecise to ease those concerns. Meanwhile, the more detailed UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative is recognizably guided by the principles of the Rio Declaration on Sustainable Development. Those include international cooperation on eradicating poverty, capacity building and technology ( Principles 5 and 9); addressing special needs of developing countries (Principle 6);  the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (Principle 7); elimination of unsustainable production and consumption processes and promotion of appropriate demographic policies (Principle 8); public participation and access to information and justice (Principle 10); and acceptable trade policy measures for environmental purposes (Principle 12).

Operationalization and the New Delhi Principles

Owing to this general adherence to Rio principles, UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative is capable of informing policies towards transition from the industrial risk model. It gives criteria for public intervention in the area of environment and the economy, emphasized in many submissions to the outcome document, including that by Brazil. Yet, for this potential to be fully realized, one should take as a reference not only the general Rio principles but also one of their often overlooked successors, the New Delhi ILA Declaration on Principles of International Law relating to Sustainable Development. Formulated by the International Law Association at its conference in 2002, the seven principles of international law on sustainable development[3] were found already in most other international documents related to sustainable development, including the Rio Declaration and Brundtland Report.

What distinguishes the New Delhi Declaration from other sets of principles is that they are accompanied by guidelines on their operationalization, including a questionnaire for policy-makers. As a result, they are increasingly recognized as a normative context for best policies and laws in the field of sustainable development, as well as in local strategies for the implementation of Agenda 21. At the international level, the Netherlands at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg identified them as mechanism for policy-making, implementation and enforcement of laws within institutional frameworks for sustainable development.

Negotiations preceding Rio+20 show that the international community continues to try balance the imperatives of the environment and social and economic development through the equity principle. When shaped through the Rio and New Delhi principles, the concept of green economy will go beyond prescribing ecological policies. In the wake of heightening resource scarcity and dwindling energy supplies, the concept can contribute to making current processes of production and consumption more equitable, both domestically and internationally. By improving resource management to prevent overexploitation and ecosystem degradation, it could help accommodate the needs of both present and future generations. Therefore, green economy could form an appropriate response to three major challenges to be discussed in Rio: how to make growth more sustainable, particularly in developing economies; how to create equity amidst intensifying tensions over natural resources; and, finally, how to respond to crises already in motion, arising from both the strained natural environment and the global market.


Framework of action

The present reluctance towards the green economy has its roots in numerous sticking points that come with it. The zero draft fails to address the fundamental issue of how the green transition can improve management of the natural world. The problem of financing also remains unanswered, leaving questions of how to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, unsustainable agriculture and fisheries, as well as stimulating investment in green technologies. How the green model can benefit – and not marginalize – the poorest by, for instance, posing trade restrictions is yet another unknown.

The roughly sketched green economy in the draft document has spawned a discussion on the framework leading towards it. The EU insists on a tangible outcome consisting of voluntary but concrete goals, targets, and modes of implementation, rather than general aspirations. These could in turn contribute to negotiations on the post-2015 framework, including the post-Kyoto regime and the future of Millennium Development Goals. The EU, currently negotiating its low-carbon Roadmap to 2050, expects the Rio outcome document to cover such topics as investment in sustainable infrastructure, public procurement policies that support greener goods and services, phasing out subsidies for environmentally harmful activities and introducing taxes on the use of energy and natural resources.

Conversely, the G77 countries reject the idea of new targets before the still valid commitments made at earlier meetings are renewed. They furthermore emphasize the flexibility necessary to fit in with country-specific economic, social and environmental conditions and, in the same vein, the importance of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. This view is shared by the United States and Canada who oppose a single green economy roadmap and instead propose nationally-determined goals.



The green economy concept has a potential of giving teeth to the aspirations set out at the Earth Summit of 1992. Under the umbrella of sustainable development, it can integrate efforts across multiple fields including, in broad strokes, protection of biodiversity, supporting mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and poverty alleviation. If the roadmap is guided by Delhi Principles, notably accompanied by concrete guidelines, some concerns of developing countries regarding implementation or unreasonable trade restrictions should prove unfounded.

Green economy can be the way to cut through the endless debate on how to operationalize the concept of sustainable development, provided it takes the form of a roadmap with clear targets and time frames, as advocated by the EU. This, however, may be wishful thinking, seeing that even in Europe stepping up green economy efforts faces strong opposition. The credibility of events to discuss global efforts towards sustainable development is crumbling under the miserably little progress made towards meeting the goals set in 1992, and the lack of new, adjusted measures. Can it be restored without eventual adoption of a concrete and realistic action plan? The concept of green economy is the closest to the latter, but can only constitute an added value to the existing mechanisms of sustainable development if coupled with targets and financing measures.



The Hague, 18 June 2012

Agata Walczak, with cooperation of Wybe Th. Douma

[1] The European Union, for example, calls for operational targets and a concrete global action plan on five priority areas: oceans, energy, land degradation, water, resource efficiency, and waste. Mexico proposes that a voluntary mechanism “should be used for accountability in the implementation of [agreed] commitments”, comprising national reports and exchange of experiences and best practices between States and observers.

[2] The more distinguishable alternatives such as the proposals for the Rights of Nature fostered by Ecuador and Bolivia, or the idea of sustainable de-growth explored within the EU Commission, have not received much attention from the negotiating governments.

[3] The New Delhi principles include: (1) the duty of States to ensure sustainable use of natural resources; (2) the principle of equity and the eradication of poverty; (3) the principle of the precautionary approach to human health, natural resources and ecosystems; (4) the principle of public participation and access to information and justice; (5) the principle of good governance; (6) the principle of common but differentiated obligations; (7) the principle of integration and interrelationship, in particular in relation to human rights and social, economic and environmental objectives.

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