Rio+20 Outcome: The Anthropocene Challenge

By Marcos Orellana, Rio de Janeiro, 22 June 2012.

Andrea, Marcos, and Alyssa, part of CIEL's delegation
Andrea, Marcos, and Alyssa, part of CIEL’s delegation

On June 20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) officially started in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The Conference opened with a documentary, Welcome to the Anthropocene, which was introduced by the UN’s Secretary-General.  The documentary visually portrays the alteration in Earth’s natural cycles induced by human activities.

Welcome to the Anthropocene echoes the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) 5th edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), published on June 6, 2012.  The report concludes that the “scientific evidence shows that Earth systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits.” Also it “cautions that if humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur.”

Rio+20 Conference
Rio+20 Conference

Facing the scientific evidence, the Rio+20 process has been channeled in diplomatic negotiations in the UN Headquarters in New York City.  The negotiations have focused on renewing political commitments that will invigorate and advance the implementation of sustainable development, and on advancing the green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD).  CIEL advocated throughout the negotiations for the integration of human rights in global environmental governance.  Rio+20 presented an opportunity for the international community to reinforce the right to a healthy environment, for present and future generations.  Last week, the negotiations moved to Rio de Janeiro, concluding in the early hours of June 20, 2012.  Ultimately, after exhaustive negotiations, the outcome document, The Future We Want will be adopted today, June 22, 2012.

However, during the opening plenary, the Major Group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rejected the outcome document because the negotiated text was “disconnected from reality”.  The NGOs found that the negotiated text did not account for scientifically environmental thresholds or effective mechanisms that could change current unsustainable development practices.

Where is the divergence between the outcome of diplomatic negotiations and the expectations of civil society?  There are various reasons that explain the weakness of the negotiated text.

First, the challenge to produce a vocabulary and a common vision of sustainability that integrates economic, social, and environmental policies that account for different cultures, religions, and ideologies cannot be underestimated.

Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro (photo credit: Greenpeace)
Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro (photo credit: Greenpeace)

Second, States find it difficult to leave aside their individual interests and to embrace the challenges involved in facing the anthropocene.

Third, the lack of trust between the North and South complicates the dialogue.  The lack of trust stems from the non-fulfillment of commitments made by industrialized countries during the 1992 World Summit; i.e., financial support, transfer of technologies, lack of leadership, etc.

Finally, the weakness of the document can be attributed to the negotiations dynamics, given that the document only includes themes and language on which the Parties could reach consensus.  Given the lack of ambition of States, the common denominator is very low.

The Rio+20 political bargain barely offers a pale light, unable to guide the way towards “the future we want”

In the context of IFSD discussions, no agreement was reached in establishing the position for a High Commissioner for Future Generations.  Though it is agreed that UNEP must be strengthened, there is no consensus to establish strong tools or to make it a specialized agency.  Likewise, while there is a consensus to modify the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), the proposed High-Level Political Forum does not include a mechanism to monitor the implementation of policies on sustainable development.

Throughout the Rio+20 negotiations, civil society insisted on the inclusion of effective accountability mechanisms to ensure the fulfillment of the Rio+20 commitments.  It comes as no surprise that NGOs are unhappy with The Future We Want because of the weak text.  Civil society also expressed concerns due to the absence of rights-based approach to sustainability.  For example, the outcome document includes references to the rights to health, food, water and sanitation, and development, yet the right to a healthy environment is not mentioned at all.  NGOs are emphasizing the disconnect between the document and reality because of the absence of the right to a healthy environment – a key tool to ensure the integrity of Earth and to advance environmental justice.

Twenty years ago, the Earth Summit adopted a sustainable development paradigm to confront poverty through integrated policies that would protect the environment.  Yet, twenty years later, scientific data shows that sustainable development policies have been unable to reverse the global environmental degradation of the planet.  Today, Rio+20 announces the arrival of the anthropocene and calls all States to take measures as soon as possible to maintain the integrity of Earth’s environment.  Nevertheless, the Rio+20 political bargain barely offers a pale light, unable to guide the way towards “the future we want”.

Originally posted on June 22, 2012.