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The Future We Want Might Not Be The Future We Get

Monday, 12 November 2012
by Philipp Pattberg, Associate Professor of Transnational Governance in the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis, Institute for Environmental Studies, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The Future We Want Might Not Be The Future We Get

The Rio+20 Summit is widely regarded as a failure: “Yet another UN mega-conference ends in disappointment…” (IISD 2012); “The Rio+20 Summit produced a largely meaningless document that failed to address the daunting environmental challenges the world faces” (Pearce 2012); the outcome of Rio+20 displays “a colossal failure of leadership and vision” (WWF, quoted in Centre for American Progress 2012). While expectations of civil society, scientists and parts of the business community have been high, the outcomes of Rio+20 are sobering. High hopes had been placed on the two main topics of the summit, the institutional reform agenda and the green economy, with little tangible effects. Instead of delivering a “transformational vision” (Brookings 2012) or a “constitutional moment” (Biermann et al. 2012), the conference has resulted in a final document that restates old commitments without delivering convincing answers to new challenges. As a reflection of what is currently possible in intergovernmental negotiations, the “Future we want” illustrates that current global environmental politics is understood as a zero-sum game by most actors. However, while the concrete outcomes are indeed disappointing, the largely negative assessment of Rio+20 derives from overly naive expectations that misunderstand the nature and purpose of international conferences. Far from being the solution to the sustainability challenge, international summits are largely symbolic events that legitimize actors both internationally and domestically. Instead of debating whether or not multilateralism as a governance approach has to be replaced, discussions should focus on how the summit results can be used to revive global sustainability governance, for example by organizing an inclusive and democratic process on the proposed Sustainable Development Goals.

Great Expectations

An evaluation of the summit outcome must start with the broader context of expectations that have been articulated in the run-up to Rio+20. It is against these overly ambitions demands that the summit is regarded as a failure. It was in particular the scientific community that raised the stakes for Rio+20. Organized by the four global change research programs, DIVERSITAS, the World Climate Research Program, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, and the International Humans Dimensions Program on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the London conference “Planet under Pressure” (26-29 March) brought together more than 3000 participants that urged governments to acknowledge that “the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk” (Brito and Stafford 2012, §1). As a response, scientists called for a “Fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions is required to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth system governance” (Brito and Stafford 2012, §C1).

As an input to the London conference, a group of leading social scientists had compiled an assessment of the current state of knowledge on global environmental governance and the possibilities of institutional reform. In this assessment (Biermann et al. 2012), scholars advocated a far-reaching ‘transformative shift’, equal to the ‘constitutional moment’ that occurred in world politics after the end of WWII. In the words of Biermann and colleagues (2012, 1606): “The world saw a major transformative shift in governance after 1945 that led to the establishment of the UN and numerous other international organizations, along with far-reaching new international legal norms on human rights and economic cooperation. We need similar changes today, a ‘constitutional moment’ in world politics and global governance.” In light of these far-reaching demands, the actual outcome of Rio+20 appears non-ambitious and without vision.

The Future we want: the Rio+20 outcome

The disappointing outcome of Rio+20 is partially the result of the broader systemic factors (such as the global economic and financial crisis) and partially the result of a deliberative strategy of the host country Brazil, which, faced with the thread of a final document that would not meet the approval of all summit participants, opted for presenting a document that was not more than a minimal consensus, but one that could be easily supported by everyone. One week before the official start of the summit, the third preparatory meeting had ended without a consensual draft document, more than 50 percent of the text still being bracketed. Brazil took over the presidency of the preparatory process days before the summit launch and started to delete contested language and overly ambitious proposals. After short deliberations, Brazil declared the final conference documented adopted before the official start of the summit. This move ensured that a consensus document would be adopted, but made it impossible for the arriving heads of state to reopen the discussion and enter into new bargains.

The 282 paragraphs of the official summit declaration (UN 2012), “The future we want”, are organized in six sections that (I) sketch a common vision of sustainable development, placing poverty eradication at its centre (§ 2); (II) restating and reaffirming old commitments, including the Stockholm Declaration, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, with specific emphasis on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (§15); (III) address the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication (§ 56-74); (IV), discuss the institutional framework for sustainable development (§ 75-103); (V) lay out a framework for action and follow-up (§ 104-251); and finally (VI) propose means of implementation. It is noteworthy that the two topics that received the bulk of the attention throughout the preparatory process, the green economy and the institutional reform agenda, are dealt with only in a total of 36 paragraphs, while the chapter on addressing the remaining gaps and future challenges in the sustainable development agenda receives close to 150 paragraphs.

Green economy

In the run-up to Rio+20, the idea of a green economy to boost sustainable technologies, reduce harmful subsidies, de-materialize production and consumption patterns while ensuring a fair distribution of the expected benefits of such a strategy had been controversially discussed. However, most observers expected the green economy discourse to be a major building bloc of any Rio+20 agreement between developed and developing countries. In this light it is surprising to see that the final text on the green economy is very weak, reflecting a missing consensus on the issue. Paragraph 56 states: “In this regard, we consider green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication as one [emphasis added] of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development and that it could provide options for policymaking but should not be a rigid set of rules.” This statement practically ends the discussion about a green economy, placing it among other policies at the disposal of national development priorities.

Institutional reform

The institutional reform agenda did not fare much better. While the zero draft of the summit declaration contained the proposal to upgrade the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to a full-fledged UN organization and to transform the weak Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) into a Sustainable Development Council with greater competences and resources, both reform proposals met fierce resistance by a broad coalition of countries, including major developed countries such as the USA, Canada and Russia. The final summit declaration agrees to strengthen UNEP by universalizing its membership without granting it a higher organizational status in the UN system. In a similar vein, the CSD is not upgraded to a stronger Sustainable Development Council, but it has been decided to establish a “universal intergovernmental high-level political forum” (§ 84), without clarifying in what ways this new institution would go beyond the existing CSD. In particular, a more robust mandate for review and monitoring of existing commitments, a demand frequently made by both the NGO and scientific community, has been postponed. In sum, far from being a transformative change in the institutional architecture of sustainable development, the summit declaration only reaffirms the suspicion that the UN system is immune to reform.

Remaining gaps and new priorities

The few positive results of Rio+20 can be found in chapter V that addresses the remaining gaps and new challenges in the context of a framework for action and follow-up. While the majority of the 26 topical sections (including poverty eradication, climate change, biodiversity, food security, water and sanitation, among others) only restate existing commitments and plans for action, substantive progress could be achieved on oceans and seas (§158-177), including a commitment to maintain or restore fish stocks to the level of maximum sustainable yield by 2015.

A second positive outcome, one that was widely anticipated in the run-up to Rio+20, is the agreement to establish an “inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on sustainable development goals that is open to all stakeholders, with a view towards developing sustainable development goals to be agreed by the General Assembly” (§248). By 2013, a working group comprising of 30 representatives nominated by the member states will be constituted. While observes had hoped for more concrete terms of references, the mandate of the working group and the general framing of the SDGs is broad enough to ensure a meaningful outcome, provided ongoing public scrutiny.

Beyond “The future we want”, observers have also highlighted the numerous “voluntary commitments” and additional public-private partnerships as the most positive summit outcome. In the words of ICLEI, the global network of local governments for sustainability, the “most remarkable outcome of Rio+20 may indeed be the global and regional, voluntary commitments” (ICLEI 2012). Sha Zukang, the Rio+20 Conference Secretary, underscores: “This Conference is about implementation. It is about concrete action. The voluntary commitments are a major part of the legacy of this Conference” (UNCSD 2012). However, while these commitments indeed show the mainstreaming of the sustainability agenda into the civil society and business communities, Rio+20 failed to establish any framework to monitor the performance of these voluntary commitments.


It seems that the outcome of Rio+20 illustrates the structural inability of mega-conferences and international diplomacy to safeguard sustainable development. In the words of UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner: “We can’t legislate sustainable development in the current state of international relations” (quoted in Pearce 2012). Echoing this assessment, scholars have been quick to dismiss the multi-lateral conference diplomacy as an approach to environmental governance altogether (Andresen and Underdal 2012). While we certainly should search for additional approaches to global environmental governance beyond mega-conferences, what is most needed now is a critical reflection on how the summit results can be used to revive global sustainability governance, for example by organizing an inclusive and democratic process on the proposed Sustainable Development Goals. We do not know the future, but we can guess that the next summit is just ahead. Prepare for Rio+25.


Andresen, Steinar and Aril Underal (2012), We do not need more global sustainability conferences, Initiative on International Environmental Governance towards Rio+20,

Biermann, Frank et al. (2012), Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Global Environmental Governance. Science 335(6074): 1606-1607.

Brito, Lidia and Mark Stafford (2012), State of the Planet Declaration,

Brookings (2012), The Rio+20 Conference: A useful forum for external commitments, but no transformative vision,

Centre for American Progress (2012), How the Rio+20 Earth Summit could have been better,

ICLEI (2012), ICLEI at Rio+20,

IISD (2012), Life after Rio: A commentary,

Pearce, Fred (2012), Beyond Rio, green economics can give us hope, The Guardian,

United Nations (2012), Draft Resolution submitted by the President of the General Assembly: The future we want,

United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, UNCSD, (2012), Rio+20 Voluntary Commitments,

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