They Delivered What They Could Deliver
And It Was More (And Different)
Than You Might Have Thought

This reflection on Rio+20 examines many of the major social institutions and how they fulfilled their functions during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Rio. The institutions are: 1. Nation-states as a collective. 2. Individual nation-states. 3. Vanguard institutions (some NGOs). 4. Action and convening NGOs. 5. Global media. 6. Governments of nation-states acting domestically 7. Individual governments in bilateral and multilateral situations. 8. Similar institutions in different countries acting together. 9. Businesses. 10. Global science. Each is considered within the assumptions of what the society expects them to deliver (in general), what is possible for them to deliver, and what they did deliver at Rio. In approaching Rio+20, our account differs considerably from much of the reportage by the mainstream media.

If you read the mainstream media reportage you would have concluded that Rio+20 was a “failure”. The government delegations did not produce a strong declaration, full of commitments, of reducing poverty, stopping climate change, and developing economies sustainably. But my personal sense was different from what I read. I was there for 7 days of the conferences and meetings. I also read about 50 media accounts of the event. That reportage, to a large degree, wasn’t what I experienced.

It seemed to me that this “reportage” was built mostly around the expectations of the leaders of organizations that I call below the “confrontational NGOs.” In short, these NGOs had “expectations” or more appropriately, “wishes” that were out of line with what one could realistically expect (given what social science knows about political behavior). One could predict with considerable certainty that they would be extremely disappointed. Thus, one of the filters through which many of the media framed their stories was through these expectations and the resultant “failure” to meet them.

But that wasn’t the whole story of Rio+20. Not by a long shot. Rather than engage in a tit-for-tat critique of the mainstream reportage, I will describe what I saw and what perhaps we can begin to make of it.

One of the ways to look at an international conference like Rio+20 is through the lens of the major institutions of global civilization such as governments, businesses, NGOs, the media, etc. Together, they form the human ecosystem of institutions that humans have created. Together, they delivered what they could deliver. We can step back and ask: “What did they deliver with respect to sustainability (both for the planet’s ecosystems and the continued thriving of humanity)?”

1. What was Rio+20?
Official name: The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 20–22 June, 2012. Themes: “The Future We Want” and “The Green Economy”. The “+20” marks the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992 during which the international treaties ‘The Convention on Biological Diversity’ and ‘The Framework Convention on Climate Change’ were signed and ‘Agenda 21’ was formulated.

2. What Happened?
50,000 people came to Rio de Janeiro to dialogue. Almost 4,000 of them were journalists. 100 were heads of states. The government officials met for 3 days and produced a document called the Rio Declaration. Almost 10,000 non-governmental organizations were registered. They convened around 6,000 side-events lasting an average of one and a half hours each. At least, 2,000 business leaders were there for five full days of major business side-events. A “People’s Summit” from civil society met in a park which was a considerable distance from the convention halls. Scientists had several-day meetings ahead of the official government meetings.

3. The Mood
Upbeat. Everybody worried, but hopeful about the future. All with a proliferation of ideas to put human civilization on a more positive course. In 30 or more pavilions and tents in several large clusters, some more permanent than others. Scattered around the city. Government negotiators were in one pavilion. The major stakeholder groups in two others. The press had a third. All these were clustered around a food court pavilion. Across the street from the convention center was yet another field full of large tents and pavilions given over to the nations of the world – a kind of mini world’s fair.

4. The Outcomes: Governments Working Together
In the media around the world, the spotlight was on the 180 nation-states and what they could put together in an international consensus process. And what the nations acting together could deliver is a 49-page Declaration mostly filled with suggestions – to each other and to other institutions – but few commitments.

Some people fantasize that nation-state leaders can decide anything they want to at any time, and do anything. Not so. I will list some of my assumptions about the behavior of institutions.

Assumption One: Nation-states can only agree to do on the international stage what their domestic politics and their national power (soft and hard) permit.

Assumption Two: Sometimes, under unusual sets of circumstances, they can act together and create new global institutions (in this case read: treaties of which the two signed in 1992 are examples). Rio+20 was not such a situation.

These two assumptions that come out of observations of governments trying to make treaties and other agreements provide us with quite different expectations. The governments working together on the Rio Declaration delivered what one could expect from these expectations. It should be noted that 180 countries working together this year at Rio+20 were able to agree on three modest actions to strengthen international institutions.

Firstly, the UN Environmental Programme was made a “universal membership” body (all nations are now members). This gives it a stronger foundation and mandate within the UN special agencies.

Secondly, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development was upgraded and proposed to have a status equal to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and thus can report directly to the UN General Assembly. These are to be formally approved at the UN General Assembly meeting beginning in September 2012.

A third outcome of the Declaration was a consensus on setting a process for creating Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. These are an upgrade to the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015. The governments agreed on a two-year timeframe to develop the SDGs (2014) and to identify the means of implementation.

Noting a shift in the framing of the international dialog, Conservation International said: “Of greatest importance was the fact that for the first time we saw both governments and businesses explicitly recognizing that natural capital (bio-diversity and ecosystem services) is the essential core element of sustainable development and that healthy ecosystems must be the foundation of human well-being. This is an extraordinary and transformative change in mindset, as it finally moves the environment from a marginal issue to a central component of future development strategies.”

Robert E. Horn: Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science; Visiting Scholar, Stanford University

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