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Tuesday July 3rd 2012

How The Rio+20 Text Could Have Been Stronger

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the Rio+20 summit

by Adam James, Andrew Light, and Gwynne Taraska

The final draft text of the Rio+20 Earth Summit agreed on today has disappointed many delegates and activists around the world. Other than the Brazilian chair of the meeting, no one seems to be strongly defending the document.

The World Wildlife Fund has declared the text “a colossal failure of leadership and vision.”  Ida Auken, the Danish Environment Minister and Chair of the European Environment Council, remarked that “the EU would have liked to see a much more concrete and ambitious outcome, so in that respect I’m not happy with it.” Even Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, said that he had hoped for a more “ambitious” outcome, though he quickly added that we should understand the difficulty has been over resolving “conflicting interests” among the parties.

Some of this criticism could be overwrought.  Unlike the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, this meeting never aimed to produce a new international treaty or a process that would lead to an international agreement.  From the start, its most ambitious aim was to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals that would replace the Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed to in New York City in 2000 and are set to expire in 2015.  Given the conflicting interests identified by Moon, it is impressive that the parties were able to go on the record supporting as many progressive changes in the development and environment agenda that they did.  But while the current Rio text acknowledges (and occasionally even underlines, underscores, and stresses) that action on sustainable development and climate change is urgently needed, it is deficient in specific goals, details on how to achieve them, and target dates.

Some, like former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, President of the U.N. Foundation, reply that we shouldn’t focus on the text as much as we should focus on the public-private partnerships that are being announced at the meeting around initiatives such as Moon’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative, which has drawn $2 billion in support from the U.S.

Wirth has a good point.  At this moment, there may be no need to wrangle further over why the Rio text is as weak as it is. Instead, we should move on to make these newly emerging institutions of international cooperation work as well as they can.  In the end, what was produced at Rio looks much more like a G20 text, simply articulating the lowest common denominator among the parties.  While activists may have hoped for more, this could be the best we could hope for in this kind of process when an actual treaty is not on the table.

Still, there are some interesting lessons to be learned here from how this text went wrong.  If we go back and look at the development of the Rio text, we can see that it could have been bolder if some parties had been allowed to strengthen it.

The Evolution of the Text

We compared the current final text in Rio with the text as it had been negotiated up to June 2nd.  We chose the June 2nd version because it still identified requests by parties to put in or take out language from the document.  Parties at the time were half-way through a two-week long meeting at the UN in New York during the third round of informal negotiations to draft a text. In contrast, the final draft from earlier this week is a text determined by the Brazilian chair of the meeting to be the best compromise between the competing interests of the parties.

Our main conclusion is that while responsibility for this final text now rests with all the assembled parties in Rio, the chair of the meeting could have pushed harder on the parties to produce a more ambitious text by negotiating throughout the week.  Instead, the pattern seems to be one of eliminating any disagreement on any item, which resulted in a joint declaration now charged with failing to provide adequate targets, timelines, or guidelines for achieving any of its aspirations.

Our comparison reveals another conclusion as well:  Had the United States’ position prevailed in the negotiations, the final text would have been stronger in terms of its chief weaknesses of specific goals and roadmaps for success.

Of course, the same could be said of the changes requested by many other parties.  But the comparison with the United States’ position is particularly instructive because the U.S. is often criticized for being one of the most conservative parties in international climate negotiations.  For example, in the part of the Rio text devoted to supporting the Millennium Development Goals as they move toward their completion in 2015, the United States wanted to eliminate language calling for increased contributions to achieve those goals.  But if a party that many perceive as one of the more conservative in these talks was in favor of a stronger agreement, then we can only imagine what would have happened if the negotiations were pushed harder.

Take, for example, the paragraph on Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL). SE4ALL has three goals:  (1) to eliminate global energy poverty by 2030, (2) to double the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030, and (3) to double the share of renewable energy in the global mix by 2030. Prior to the Rio meeting, Ban Ki-moon was promoting it as a potential centerpiece of a Rio agreement.  Although the United States sought to curtail language in the earlier text that implied financial assistance from UN member countries to achieve these ends, it strongly pushed for including language in the text on private sector engagement. The final text, interestingly enough, scrapped both avenues for funding these initiatives – and just made no mention of funding whatsoever.

So far as we can tell, the Sustainable Energy for All provision in the draft Rio document, as the United States would have had it, is:

We note the Secretary General’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative and its aspirational goals of ensuring universal access to modern energy services by 2030; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030. We recognize that resources will be necessary to achieve these results particularly through enabling environments that unlock private sector investments. We encourage voluntary follow-up efforts to coordinate and to catalyse public-private partnerships and to track progress towards its three goals and, in this regard, we encourage States and relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, to conduct, as appropriate, collaborative international research and capacity development based on a roadmap to be developed through a multilateral process, involving all stakeholders.

The final text was dramatically shorter and cut out several important clarifications, including the U.S. comment on enabling private sector investments.  Equally important, if not more so, especially given the criticisms of the text now circulating in the media, is the fact that the final version cuts out any mention of the need to develop a roadmap to achieve these goals inserted by Kazakhstan apparently due to objections by China and the “Group of 77” developing countries.  To add insult to injury a caveat is added at the end of the statement essentially letting off the hook any party which doesn’t want to try to achieve these goals.

We note the launching of the initiative by the Secretary General on “Sustainable Energy for All,” which focus on access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energies. We are all determined to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality, and through this, help eradicate poverty and lead to sustainable development and global prosperity. We recognize that countries’ activities in broader energy-related issues are of great importance and are prioritized according to their specific challenges, capacities and circumstances, including energy mix.

An important caveat to this claim is that while the earlier draft text reveals what parties wanted inserted or taken out, it doesn’t show what all parties thought about every provision.  A country would not have been able to articulate an objection if another country already registered a reservation. Still, absent any other evidence, a push for stronger support for SE4ALL would have delivered a better conclusion to the meeting.

At some point though, SE4ALL was eclipsed in the negotiating process by an attempt to use Rio to create a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, which could eventually replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015.  Here too, we see a pattern where even cautious improvements in the text were rejected.

Sustainable Development Goals are not articulated in the text. The attempt to express them resulted in a burgeoning list of goals, as parties pitched in their favorite priorities. Instead, the final document establishes a new “high level political forum” charged with starting a process this fall at the opening of the U.N. generally assembly in New York that will come up with a set of new sustainability goals.  It is entrusted with a range of things, such as encouraging system-wide participation by all U.N. agencies, enhancing the consultative role of relevant stakeholders in the process, strengthening the science-policy interface for setting goals, and making decision-making more evidenced-based. It will be composed of 30 members, nominated by the member states and representing all regions of the world, and is charged with delivering a final set of recommendations by 2014.  This forum also will have an institutional home in the U.N. system and will eventually replace the existing U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, which was the official convener of the Rio summit.

Still, some of the more interesting additions to the text, which could have improved this process and even staved off some of the criticisms now being levied against it, were jettisoned last week in the push to find consensus early in the meeting.

In the section on financing these new goals, the U.S. moved in several places to modify the overwhelming reliance on public assistance common in the U.N. system.  But they did offer an alternative in a proposed section on tax reform to help the poor, which was struck entirely in the final text. Here’s the U.S. proposal:

We reaffirm that national ownership and leadership of development strategies and good governance are important for effective mobilization of domestic financial resources and fostering sustained fiscal reform, including tax reform, which is key to enhancing macroeconomic policies and mobilizing domestic public resources. Countries should also continue to improve budgetary processes and to enhance the transparency of public financial management and the quality of expenditures. We emphasize the need to enhance tax revenues through modernized tax systems, more efficient tax collection, broadening the tax base and effectively combating tax evasion. We stress that these efforts should be undertaken with an overarching view to make tax systems more pro-poor. – US (adapted from Monterrey 16)]

This entire section was struck.  The final text, which merely says that member nations recognize “the crucial importance of enhancing financial support from all sources for sustainable development” is not nearly as specific.  There were additional attempts to give the financial portions of the Sustainable Development Goals a needed boost, but those proposals were also dropped from the text.

Conclusion

In responding to criticisms of the final text, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that if you convened 193 of the protestors in Rio, “they would have difficulty finding a common denominator, too.”  He’s likely correct.  But given the legacy issues at stake for how this conference will be remembered – and the possibility that the summit will come to be seen as a reason to abandon meetings of this scale – a harder push on the assembled parties to strengthen their commitments would have been worth it.

The opportunity to do that, of course, is now over.  We hope that the new commission begins its work by mining earlier drafts of the Rio document for actionable ideas.

Adam James is a Special Assistant and Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.  Gwynne Taraska is Research Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.

This article was originally posted on Climate Progress