Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development

By W.L. Sumathipala


The Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which was adopted in Stockholm on the 16th June 1972 recognized the importance of protecting the environment. Afterwards, at the first summit in 1992, also held in Rio de Janeiro, a historic set of 27 principles on Environment and Development - the Rio Declaration; as well as Agenda 21, a detailed plan of action was adopted.  This was also the occasion for the opening for signatures of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

Prior to Rio+20 (in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20-22 June 2012) Rio+10 was held in Johannesburg in 2002 where the Rio Declaration and related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were discussed and a platform for implementation (Johannesburg plan of implementation) was agreed upon. 

RIO +20

The United Nations General assembly (A/RES/64/236) established the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and one of the themes set up was, “a green economy in the context of sustainable development”.  Since the aim of the summit was to agree on a draft decision, the co-chairs of the Bureau prepared and released “zero draft” as an initial working document in January 2012.  There were several meetings in different parts of the world, held in order to negotiate the text and a Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting held to finalize the document.  This was hosted at the same venue as Rio+20 a week prior to the summit, where world leaders met from 20-22 June.

Apart from these negotiation sessions, there were many side events that disseminated information on various subjects related to sustainable development. For example, there were seven sustainable development dialogues organized by the Brazilian Government.  The topics under discussion were: 1) Food and Nutrition Security, 2) Global Financial Crisis, 3) Unemployment, 4) Energy, 5) Oceans, 6) Cities, 7) Forests, and 8) Production and Consumption Patterns.

Under the Food and Nutrition dialogue, the right of all people to good nutritious food and need to support small farmers and promote ecologically sound agricultural methods was accepted.  In addition, the need for ecological farming was also highlighted. It was agreed that in order to achieve this, small and developing countries with special emphasis on women, were key to both the present and the future of agriculture.  Access to land, credit, subsidies, storage facilities and transport were identified as being most important.  It was recognized that chemical-based water-intensive agriculture had been a mistake as this led to climate change in part as well as excessive expenditure on fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds.  Calculations reveal that that energy spent in producing is more than the energy stored in the produced food.  It was also argues that subsidies offered by Developed Countries to their farmers have made food unreasonably cheap and as a result small farmers in developing countries are badly affected.  Other dialogues of this nature have made similar proposals that will be included in the report when the Brazilian Government was asked to finalized tChe report.

At the summit 53 page document, ‘The Future We Want,’ was adopted by the heads of state, ministers and official delegates who attended the summit. The sections included in it were: Our Common Vision, Renewing Political Commitment, Green Economy in the context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, Framework for Action and Follow-up, and Means of Implementation. 

In section I of the document, ‘Our Common Vision,’ high level delegates declared that they will renew their commitments to sustainable development and to ensure the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet for present and future generations.  It also stated that the eradication of poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and that it was an indispensible requirement for sustainable development. 

Since most of the actions and the success of progress depend on the political commitment of all parties- especially that of Developed Countries, it is important to analyze what happened under this section.

As a whole, it was seen that most Developed Countries displayed a weak political will to fulfill their obligations to provide necessary support (finance and technology) to Developing Countries.  One of the aims of the summit was to reaffirm 27 Rio Principles that were agreed upon at the 1992 Earth Summit.  However the 7th Rio Principles which deals with common but differentiated responsibilities was not agreed to by Developed Countries at the PrepCom meeting.  The main problem for them was the differentiation of responsibilities, which suggested that Developed Countries have a bigger responsibility.

At the end of PrepCom, the document was handed over to the Brazilian Government to finalize after discussions with relevant stake holders.  Finally, the document, including principle 7 with its common but differentiated responsibilities, of Rio Principles was adopted as the outcome of the summit.

Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, in her speech at the closing session of the summit on the 22nd July, said that the outcome document was a starting point for implementing the path to sustainable development.  There are many important points in the document that will have a bearing on the development path of Developing Countries.

In relation to changing sustainable patterns of consumption and production which was agreed to at Rio+10, it was agreed that all countries should promote sustainable consumption and production patterns.  It was emphasized that developed countries need to take the lead for the benefit of all, taking into account the Rio Principles, including the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility.

A significant achievement of the summit was the adoption of a ten year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns that was finalized at the 19th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in 2011.

Other major achievements of Rio+20 are that it has implications not only for the UN Sustainable Development Agenda but also for the negotiations on the UN Framework on Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) which operates on the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR).  Developed Countries opposed to the references made to CBDR in the paragraphs  on the  Rio conventions, but agreed to urge all parties to fully implement their commitments under the conventions in accordance with their respective principles and provisions, as well as to make efforts and create actions and measures at all levels and to enhance international cooperation.

There was a decision taken to work on a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the next few years and there were concerns, especially among Developing Countries, that this could undermine the implementations of the MDGs whose target deadline is 2015. Technology transfer for sustainable development was finally agreed as having input in finance, debt, trade and technology transfer as mutually agreed, and innovation, entrepreneurship, capacity – building, transparency and accountability.

The agreed text on Climate Change states that combating climate change requires urgent and ambitious action, in accordance with the principles and provisions of the UNFCCC.

Political commitment was renewed, complete with broad statements, calling for holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development that will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and which would lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.

Other major topics in the report included Green Economy in the context of Sustainable development and poverty eradication.  It was concluded that policies for a green economy should be guided by and be in accordance with all the Rio Principles, Agenda 21, and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. 

It must be noted that in addition to these agreements to bear fruits there should also be legally binding instruments (protocols) or genuine efforts by all parties especially Developed Country members.  From the voices of big powers in the developed world it could be inferred that the progress will be slow and actions will be limited and biased.  Developing Countries should, therefore, move forward steadily on agreed principles and binding agreements at least to strive to achieve whatever possible as early as possible. 

The author W.L. Sumathipala is Professor of Physics at the Open University of Sri Lanka and
Senior Technical Advisor, Ministry of Environment.


  1. Sustainable development very critical aspect for a developing country. It would be grateful that if you can add the role of Sr Lanka as a country in relation to the topic.
    By the way Sir it is nicely elaborated all the things that we need to capture.

    Suraj Perera

  2. Verymuch informatiove

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