Road to Rio +20: “The future we want” and the paradox of a dream

Road to Rio +20: “The future we want” and the paradox of a dream

by Steve Arowolo

The prospects for a better future for the world at large are dependent on a collaborative effort across all sectors of our global socio-political economy. As the world gradually becomes a global village in an era of unprecedented technological revolution and economic interdependency, the idea of our common future as contained in the report published by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, widely known as the Brundtland report, could only be assigned more significance in our collective quest for sustainable development in the face of prevailing current political, social and environmental challenges. The acceptance of the Brundtland report by the United Nations General Assembly accorded great political significance to the term our common future, and in 1992 political leaders across the world set out the principles of sustainable development at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Our common future presents to us a classical definition of sustainable development as the “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland report, 1987).” While this definition could be said to have gained global acceptance, it suffices to ask ourselves if the needs of the present are currently being met, in a world where poverty and hunger still prevails, a world where infant and maternal mortality rates are still far from massive decline in most part of the developing and least developed world, a world where climate change and its attendant effects are posing great threats to food security and sustainable livelihoods among the rural poor; we may have to redefine the present in order for us to better understand the kind of future we want. This notion of sustainable development ever since the Rio Conference in 1992 has become a generally accepted concept; it has however suffered lack of implementation of its lofty agenda as enshrined in Agenda 21 of the Rio declaration.

Agenda 21 comprised 40 separate chapters, highlighting specific sets of actions needed for effective implementation in regard to the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development, conservation and management of natural resources, the role of major groups, and method or means of implementation. Regrettably, most of these specific actions needed for implementation have not yet been actualized, 20 years after the first Rio declaration. The UN General Assembly reaffirms this failure of implementation in 1997 (paragraphs 4 and 17); as contained in the document of the nineteenth special session of the UN General Assembly held on the 19th of September, 1997, that “the overall trends with respect to sustainable development are worse today than they were in 1992” and “much remains to be done to activate the means of implementation set out in Agenda 21, in particular in the areas of finance and technology transfer, technical assistance and capacity-building.” It is also worth mentioning that in his 2002 report on implementing Agenda 21, the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan confirmed that “progress towards reaching the goals set at Rio has been slower than anticipated” and “there is undoubtedly a gap in implementation” (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2002, p. 4).

The task before Rio +20 is huge but one wonders if pending issues bothering on holistic implementation of Agenda 21 of the initial Rio declaration would be revived and reinvigorated in the face of politics and ‘politricking’ that often characterize such international negotiations. In the year 2002, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were well articulated into sustainable development negotiations during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) that took place in Johannesburg. This demonstrated a paradigm shift in the way sustainable development was being perceived as a concept that focuses only on the environmental issues by ensuring that discussions and negotiations were tilted towards social and economic development.

The UN Millennium Declaration was adopted in 2000 and mandated countries to reach eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. While the general slogan for Rio +20 remains “The future we want” the conference has two major themes which are: (a) green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication (b) the institutional frameworks for sustainable development. These themes appear to be the derivatives of the MDGs which are currently not being addressed by most countries in the developing world.

As the world dreams of ‘the future we want’ towards Rio +20, our failure to reconcile our dreams with the reality of our current situation may further compound our problems, it remains in the figment of my imagination how Rio +20 will resolve the principle 7 of the Rio declaration of 1992 which emphasized the importance of global partnership to conserve and nurture the environment in the spirit of mutual but differentiated responsibilities, which is in tandem with Article 3 of the UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties which equally emphasizes the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. The statements contained in the Stern reviews of 2006 on the economics of climate change also emphasized that. “The poorest developing countries will be hit earliest and hardest by climate change, even though they have contributed little to causing the problem. Their low incomes make it difficult to finance adaptation. The international community has an obligation to support them in adapting to climate change. Without such support there is a serious risk that development progress will be undermined” (Stern, 2006)

However, the last three Conference of Parties (COPs 15,16, and 17) have clearly revealed to us the difficulties in reaching consensus in negotiations towards actualizing our dreams; it appears as if the themes and the slogan of the Rio +20 are paradoxical to the dream of the future we all envisage based on our prevailing circumstances. It might be argued that the issues of climate change and sustainable development are the same issues; these account for the reasons why climate change issues have suddenly become a proxy for analyzing sustainable development in some quarters. However, it must be emphasized that if climate change is adequately addressed it can offer some hopes for the actualization of sustainable development agenda, both of them are multi-sectoral such that one could hardly be substituted for another, both of them require international negotiations for complete resolution of their complexities. Since the world leaders have failed thus far to agree on climate change negotiations, the possible outcome of a positive sustainable development negotiation (Rio +20) leaves one with more questions than answers.

*Steve Arowolo is a postgraduate student with the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should therefore not be attributed to ACDI or the University of Cape Town.

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