Photos courtesy of United Nations
After countless hours of preparation, debate, and policy drafting, Rio+20, the most important UN meeting in over a decade, has come to an end.
The conference concluded with some impressive action to count among its achievements. Almost 700 voluntary commitments were made by governments, businesses, civil society groups, and other organization to work towards sustainable development. In monetary terms, these commitments totaled more than $513 billion - an amount of money that could go a long way towards building a better future.
“These voluntary commitments are a major part of the legacy of this conference,” said conference Secretary-General Sha Zukang. “The numerous commitments bring together key actors united behind the same cause to achieve sustainable development.”
UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner agreed with Mr. Sha’s statements. He called the Rio outcome document “a reflection of the world at the moment” and noted that the topics of reversing climate change and establishing a green economy are now on the agenda like never before.
In addition to securing these record breaking voluntary commitments, Rio+20 laid out the stipulations for the drafting of Sustainable Development Goals; a framework designed to set targets and priorities for international development after the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015 and renewed the United Nations’ commitment to addressing the challenges of sustainable development, and working towards the creation of a green economy.
It also reiterated the strong link between sustainable development and human rights, and called for the development of partnerships, across different sectors, industries, nations, and generations, to tackle the bewilderingly complex issues that we face and improve the overall health of an ailing planet.
Now that these goals have been established, the key is implementing them.
Photos courtesy of United Nations
“Action will be taken and will be mobilized by all of our distinguished United Nations system,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “This is not only the Secretariat, specialized agencies, World Bank and IMF. All UN family, UN system, will be mobilizing our effort and resources and capacity. Let us see how our leaders will do.”
Logistically, this conference has been a massive undertaking. The total number of participants came in at over 45,000 from 188 countries. Over 100 heads of state and government attended, as did almost 10,000 NGOs and Major Groups, 4,000 members of the media, and 1,500 volunteers – half of whom were selected from vulnerable communities and 5 percent of whom were persons with disabilities.
All of these numbers have made Rio+20 the biggest conference in UN history.
For all of its merits, some observers, including many within the UN, see weak spots within the text of the Rio outcome document. Representatives of NGOs and Major Groups have expressed concern about the statement’s length (49 pages), and its inaccessibility. Still others worry that the provisions it lays out lack the teeth to truly accomplish the ambitious goals it establishes, and find it likely that, without watchdog-like supervision, its recommendations could fall by the wayside.
Voicing some of these complaints, The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, and includes notable statesmen and women like Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, and Jimmy Carter, noted that “we have to move forward. There is no alternative.” It also claimed that “the most important message…is that the collective task of making the three pillars of sustainable development a reality must continue – and we don’t have time to lose.”
Nitin Desai, who served as the Secretary-General of the UN’s last major conference on sustainable development in 2002, is familiar with these concerns. Noting the general lack of satisfaction with UN conference outcomes, he reminded those in Rio that, while imperfect, previous documents like Agenda 21 have put issues of sustainable development directly and tangibly on the table. He also pointed out that it is not necessarily in governance that real solutions are created, but in the actions taken by the vast array of public, private, and civil society partnerships, and in innovations developed on the ground.
As the United Nations leaves Rio de Janeiro, it does so with the hope that the outcome document drafted will be successful in thwarting the destructive trajectory that our planet now appears to be on, and changes the game when it comes to sustainability.