What Happened At Rio ?

by Victor Anderson, Senior Policy Officer, Green Economy, WWF-UK


By comparison with what the world needs, Rio was a failure. However it provided a focus and catalyst for many useful developments, some referred to in the conference outcome document and others announced separately by companies, governments, and civil society organisations. Here is a brief overview of some key points from Rio.



Overall this is an underwhelming document. However there are some points worth noting –

Processes established by Rio +20

Para 38 establishes a process to investigate indicators to ‘complement’ GDP. This will be led by the UN Statistical Commission.

Para 47 is a weakly-worded paragraph on corporate reporting, but it gives backing to the making of further efforts in this area.

Para 61 recognizes the problem of “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption”; Para 224 recognizes that “fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development”; Para 226 says that action by member states to tackle this will be “voluntary”. However the conference asks the UN General Assembly to set up a process to take this area of work forward.

Para 162 commits the UN to address the issue of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction, by October 2014.

There are lots of “recognize the importance of mobilising funding” for various things (e.g. Para 191 on climate, para 200 on biodiversity, Para 206 on land degradation, Paras 252 & 254 on the whole SD agenda). Para 255 announces the establishment of a process to develop an SD financing strategy, including a 30-member expert committee to conclude its work by 2014.

Para 248 announces the establishment of a 30-member group of government representatives to work on defining Sustainable Development Goals and report to the General Assembly in October 2013.

Para 273 establishes a process for working out how to facilitate the transfer of green technologies to developing countries.

Other points worth noting

Paras 1-37 clearly frame the document as principally about poverty, with un-sustainability seen above all as a barrier to continued economic development.

Para 56 positions green economy as “one of the important tools available … could provide options for policymakers” – so not a ringing endorsement of the concept.

Para 69 uses the weak word “invite” in its call to business and industry “as appropriate” to contribute to sustainable development.

Para 39 is what remains of the Bolivian proposal for a UN Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (to parallel the UN Declaration of Human Rights).

Para 84 records a decision to establish a “high-level political forum” on sustainable development, eventually replacing the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Para 85(h) says this body will enhance the participation of nongovernment stakeholders at international level.

Although the establishment of a UN Commissioner for Future Generations disappeared from the text in the negotiating process, Para 86 says the Secretary-General will present a report on “promoting intergenerational solidarity for the achievement of sustainable development, taking into account the needs of future generations.”

Para 88 provides for the strengthening of UNEP.

Para 91 says sustainable development “should be given due consideration” by international financial institutions.

Para 145 affirms “the need for the provision of universal access to reproductive health, including family planning”. Para 241 has similar wording.

Para 166 gives ocean acidification a mention as a problem requiring international co-operation.

Para 173 reaffirms the commitment to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity in fishing.

Para 225 reaffirms previous commitments to “phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

Para 191 calls for “accelerating the reduction” of greenhouse gas emissions.

Para 222 recognises that hydrofluorocarbons, introduced to avoid damage to the ozone layer, are worsening the problem of climate change.

What is missing ?

There is so much that is missing that it is probably not useful (or possible) to list it all. However it is worth emphasising that – contrary to much of the talk beforehand – two of the favourite ‘green economy’ phrases derived from environmental economics and taken up by many governments and NGOs are missing – namely “natural capital” and “payment for ecosystem services”. Although these concepts have a lot of traction in Europe, G77 simply wouldn’t buy them.

Despite a lot of talk about the “nexus” of “water, energy and food security”, the sections on those topics (Paras 108 to 129) are strikingly weak in terms of policy commitments.

There is no mention of the terms “boundaries”, “carrying capacity”, or “limits”, and little reference to population as an issue.



The website ‘Cloud of Commitments’ has been set up to provide a record of commitments made by governments, companies, NGOs, and others at Rio.

Over half (57%) of the commitments it lists are in the field of energy. There are currently (June 26) 212 commitments listed in total. The UNCSD’s own Rio website (Voluntary Commitments) listed 712. UN DESA (Department of Economic & Social Affairs) is reporting that these commitments involve a total expenditure of over half a trillion dollars ($513 b). Interesting commitments include –

Australia committed to establish the world’s largest network of marine reserves (more than 3m km2).

Natural Capital Declaration: commits several significant banks and other financial institutions to take full account of “natural capital” in their assessments of firms, lending policies, etc.

President Yudhoyono on Indonesia has pledged to protect coastal and ocean areas as a means of establishing food security.

Microsoft has committed to offset carbon emissions and step up its use of renewable energy, in order to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of fiscal year 2013.

Unilever say they will bring safe drinking water to half a billion people by 2020.

Brazil, South Africa, France, and Denmark are forming ‘Friends of Paragraph 47’ to advance corporate sustainability reporting.

Eight multilateral development banks will provide more than $175 billion in loans and grants for sustainable transport systems in developing countries over the next 10 years.

Philips committed to improving the energy efficiency of its entire product range by 50% in 2015, compared to 2009, and to advance solar-LED lighting.

Bank of America is committing $50 billion over the next 10 years to finance energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy access.

Coca-Cola aims to safely return to nature and communities an amount of water equivalent to what it uses in all its beverages and their production, by 2020.



Despite the failings of the Rio +20 Outcome Document, The Future We Want, there is a great deal going on that is positive, and much of the focus and inspiration for that has been the Rio conference itself. The world is better off with the conference having taken place than it would have been without it. However, we are still nowhere near an adequate set of responses to the planetary crisis.


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