Development as Right - The Rio+20 summit resulted in an agreement to mark time

Environmental activists have criticized the outcome of the recently concluded Rio+20 summit as insubstantial. They are not wrong, but they have missed the main point. There was a very real danger that, far from registering progress, the summit would actually mark a giant step backwards for sustainable development. Rich and powerful countries made a concerted attempt to actually undo and reverse the advances that were achieved 20 years ago at the same city of Rio de Janeiro. Had they succeeded, the recent summit may well have gone down in history as the Rio minus 20 conference. Fortunately, on this occasion, the developing countries displayed a degree of unity that is becoming increasingly rare. By standing united, they largely succeeded in thwarting the attempt to push sustainable development into reverse gear.

The United Nations conference on environment and development held in Rio in 1992 was a landmark in the field of sustainable development. Among its most important achievements was a set of fundamental environmental principles known as the Rio Declaration. These included the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which asserted that while all countries share a common responsibility for preventing environmental degradation, the responsibilities of the developed countries are greater, reflecting their greater historical contributions to environmental degradation. Another important principle stated that environmental standards valid for developed countries might be inappropriate for developing countries where they might entail higher economic and social costs. The Rio Declaration incorporated the right to development. The 1992 conference also adopted crucially important conventions on two major global challenges, those posed by climate change and the loss of biodiversity, as well as an action plan called Agenda 21.

Initially, environmentalists around the globe had high hopes that the Rio+20 conference would build on these earlier achievements and strengthen international cooperation on sustainable development. This is especially important because progress on many of the 1992 agreements has fallen far short of expectation. On climate change, in particular, there has been a serious shortfall in implementation, with the result that the challenge has become much more acute.

As negotiations commenced, however, it became increasingly clear that the developed countries were unprepared to carry out their obligations under the 1992 accords. They tried to ignore, bypass or degrade the 1992 consensus. They sought to downplay the importance of equity and the Rio principles. In particular, they questioned references to the right to development as a human right, the supreme importance of poverty eradication and the crucially important principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. These positions amounted to an attempt to shift their responsibilities to the shoulders of the developing countries. In effect they sought to whittle down the developmental dimension of sustainable development. They maintained that G-77 members should look to fellow developing countries, in particular the so-called "emerging economies" such as China, India and Brazil for financial support. They rejected technology transfer except on commercial or mutually agreed terms.

The stand taken by the developed countries dashed all hopes of achieving real progress. China and G-77 were left with only two options. They could either give in to the strident demands of the developed countries, surrendering the gains achieved in 1992 and jeopardizing inclusive development, or they could negotiate an anodyne, least common denominator document acceptable to all countries. China and G-77 rightly chose the latter option. The positions adopted by the developed countries ruled out the possibility of real progress but G-77 and China were at least able to ensure that there was no surrender of the major gains achieved in 1992.

Thus the Rio+20 outcome document includes a reaffirmation of the Rio Declaration, refers specifically to the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, the right to development, and to equity (in the context of climate change). It recognizes that poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge facing the world today.

All this was not easily achieved. There was resistance from affluent countries to the incorporation of these elements. However, in marked contrast to the current climate change negotiations, the G-77 and China coalition maintained a united front and refused to give in to the developed countries. The host country, Brazil, displayed high diplomatic skill in fashioning a document that all countries could be persuaded to accept. India played a notable role in the negotiations and the Union minister of state for the environment, Jayanthi Natarajan, can claim with justifiable pride that the outcome document reflects our position on basic issues such as the overriding importance of inclusive growth and poverty eradication, as well as on the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.

We must recognize, however, that Rio+20 was only a holding operation. The North and the South wanted to march in opposite directions. The developed countries wanted the summit to march backwards to the pre-1992 starting line, while the developing countries wanted to advance. The result was essentially an agreement to mark time.

The title of the Rio+20 outcome document had been decided in advance: "The Future We Want". The contents that finally emerged failed to live up to the title. The outcome falls grievously short of the required global response to the rapidly increasing environmental challenges that confront humanity.

So where do we go from here?

The outcome document launched a process for formulating a set of global sustainable development goals. A Brazilian negotiator described this decision as the "crown jewel" of the summit. It is important now for the developing countries to formulate their own proposals concerning the scope and nature of sustainable development goals. They must not allow the affluent countries to retain the initiative and play a merely reactive or defensive role in the negotiations that have been launched.

It is essential that internationally agreed sustainable development goals should meet three requirements. First, they should be equitable and in full conformity with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Nowhere is this more important than in the context of energy, which is inseparably connected with climate change. The climate change convention rests solidly on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and it must be ensured that this link is not weakened in the energy section of an agreement on sustainable development goals.

Second, sustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles must be an integral feature of the global sustainable development goals. There is a tendency on the part of some influential analysts to view development as a major cause of environmental stress or degradation. Rising living standards in poor countries are seen as a stress factor, rather than unsustainable consumption patterns in affluent societies. As Manmohan Singh gently pointed out at Rio, "current consumption levels in the industrialized world are unsustainable".

Last but not least, the overriding priority of economic and social development and poverty eradication must inform each of the global sustainable development goals. Inclusive development must not be viewed as a threat to the environment but rather as the essential enabling factor for protecting and enhancing the environment. Development yields the resources needed to protect and enhance the environment.

Tags: climate change, sustainable development, Rio+20 summit, Outcomes of Rio+20