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Rio+20: a historic turning point or a flop?

This year marks 20 years since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The original summit's full name was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and it was there that the three conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification were adopted. The fight for what will be the outcome of this year's conference is well underway.

In Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, state leaders from more than 120 countries, and even more ministers, thousands of representatives of governments, and tens of thousands activists and representatives of organizations from around the world will gather to discuss environmental and development issues. Preparations have been going on for almost two years, but it is still very unclear what will come out of the conference. Will it be a historical turning point, about which future generations will talk as the conference which laid the foundation for a real sustainable development? Or will it be a big flop, with a lot of talks about the necessity of eradicating hunger and poverty, stopping climate change and other serious environmental problems - without resulting in substantial changes? Maybe some important steps in the right direction will be made, or perhaps some in a completely wrong direction. There is still considerable uncertainty about what will be adopted at the summit.

A draft expanding from 19 to 200 pages
The UN General Assembly has decided that the main themes of Rio+20 will be green economy within the framework of sustainable development and eradication of poverty - and the organization of institutions working on sustainable development. In January, the so-called zero draft came from the secretariat of the conference. It was based on nearly 700 proposals from governments, UN agencies, research institutions and NGOs. It was on this 19 pages document that governments started negotiating. The second round of negotiations was conducted in the period 19-27th March, and the document has grown now to 200 pages!
The text that now forms the basis for further negotiations includes all changes and proposals from all countries and groups of countries that wanted to make suggestions, and there are many. It is good that the G77+China group, which includes 133 countries, mostly presented common proposals! The text also has a myriad of brackets and notes showing which countries have put forward new proposals, proposed deletions, changes in formulations and suggestions to reorganize the text.
Many had hoped that the countries at the March meeting would give mandate to the secretariat or the chairman of the conference in June to create a new text based on all proposals and discussions, or at least to present a text in which suggestions would be grouped and similar proposals merged. But the G77+China didn’t want to give such mandate. Based on extensive experience, they had good reasons to believe that this new text would remove many of their proposals, and that therefore one would have to start negotiating all over again.
Although no new text will be put on the table before the countries meet in late April, much will be done in the next four weeks to prepare the negotiations. The secretariat, individual countries and groups of countries will have close contact with each other to find out what they can agree on and how proposals going in the same direction can be coordinated.

What are the main disagreements?

Although the myriad of proposals makes it very difficult to get an overview of where agreement and disagreement lie, it is still possible to see some main trends. It is necessary to emphasize that the points below are based on the subjective perception of Aksel Nærstad (Development Fund), who was present during the negotiations at the UN in March.

Combating poverty: Most developing countries (G77+China) believe that the main focus of Rio+20 must be poverty eradication in an environmentally sustainable development, while the rich countries do not want to focus specifically on poverty reduction. They insist for the focus on environment to be as strong as on poverty.

The need for change: there are very different perceptions of how serious the situation is for the environment, and thus whether it is necessary to have rapid and drastic measures, or only a slight adjustment. New measures and new policies or implement what is already decided: the rich countries do not want to focus so much on the lack of implementation of previous resolutions. The G77+China, however stressed that plenty of good measures have already been adopted, and that the main problem is about implementation. A good example of this is that rich countries have pledged to provide at least 0.7% of gross national income in development aid. Although this promise was given in the UN General Assembly as early as in 1970, and has since been repeated in many international agreements, so far only five countries have met this target.

Green Economy: There is no common definition of what "green economy" is. Rio Conference in 1992 made the concept of sustainable development known. After the conference, almost everything was called sustainable. Now many fear that the "green economy" will also be used and abused. Businesses that are far from being sustainable will green wash their activities and hide behind a smokescreen of empty green rethoric. Many developing countries have warned that the "green economy" will work just like that.

Human rights: The vast majority of countries feel it is important to emphasize the fundamental human rights recognized by the UN. This includes the right to food and the right to water. The United States want, however, to delete all references to such human rights.

More or less regulation: USA, Australia and New Zealand emphasize their policy of free trade and deregulation, while many other countries underscores the importance of local and national trade, and the necessity of regulation of financial operations and activities that have a great negative impact on the environment.

Local or global: Many countries stressed the importance of local and national food production and local markets. U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand suggest, however, to delete all references to this in the text, and will only talk about global food production and global markets.

Reproductive health and contraception: Although all countries underline the importance of women, their specific roles and needs, there are deep disagreements on a number of statements about women. Not surprisingly, the Vatican tries to delete all allusions to contraception and birth control.

Common and differentiated responsibility: It is a recognized principle in international negotiations on environment and development that all countries have a shared responsibility, but that responsibility is also very different due to historical conditions and unequal distribution of wealth. Naturally, the developing countries underline that this principle must be emphasized in connection with most of the questions that are on the table for Rio+20, while many of the rich countries would like to tone it down.

Green protectionism: Many rich countries have suggested that there must be stricter environmental requirements and standards for the production of goods, including fisheries. Developing countries fear that such standards will be used as an excuse for a protectionist policy in which national production in rich countries will be supported at the expense of imports from developing countries.

Sustainability goals, roadmap and indicators: There is fairly broad agreement about the need to develop sustainable goals, but what kind of goals should be developed, and how far one should go in Rio, is far from making consensus.

Some believe that the Rio+20 goals should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as their "time frame" goes out in 2015, others believe that they come in addition, and that they should focus on positive goals for sustainability, not to eradicate the negative situations, such as the MDGs are doing.

These are very different perceptions and aspirations about how far one should go before and during the Rio Summit. This also leads to disagreements about whether a "roadmap" and indicators for the objectives should be prepared and if so, how specific these should be.

By Aksel Naerstad, International Coordinator of More and Better and Senior Policy Advisor for Development Fund, Norway