Rio +20: Will it deliver?

Sustainable development. Get ready to hear that term a lot during 2012.

20 years on from the original Earth Summit and Agenda 21, Rio +20, shorthand for the UN Conference for Sustainable Development, is fast approaching. The 3 day conference has two major themes:

  • ‘The green economy’ and
  • ‘Sustainable development in the context of poverty eradication’.

Already a seven strong list of ‘critical issues’ to be addressed at Rio has been released.

In November 2011 the G20 made a ‘commitment to success in Rio +20’. All very promising. But what, my colleagues like to ask; does a positive Rio outcome look like? In fact, will there be a Rio outcome? Will Rio address the root causes of poverty and injustice? Will Rio challenge inequality; accelerating climate change; environmental degradation, resource scarcity, increasing levels of hunger and malnutrition. Bottom line, can it and will it truly deliver poverty eradiation? The ‘green economy’ remains a fuzzy and nebulous term but will it bring prosperity for the poor? Will this, yet another global summit, serve the world’s poorest communities?


Expectations surrounding Rio +20 are at once both low and high.  This is a major and critical opportunity for world leaders to confront the social, environmental and economic crises gripping the world today; to reflect; take stock and reach the only rational conclusion: 1) future approaches to development and resource use must be different and 2) the change of track must be immediate. Since I began working on Rio +20 at Tearfund in July, the momentum has grown, but slowly.  Until now, awareness of Rio +20, it’s potential and significance, has been minimal outside of the NGO and academic worlds.

 Remaining upbeat, I believe the road to Rio is paved with opportunity as well as challenge. I remain optimistic, dare I say excited about the next six months and what Rio could be the catalyst for. Consensus believes that Rio will serve as a kick-off not a sign-off. Substantive policy outcomes are unlikely. A bounce; a hook; a spring board – call it what you will, Rio +20 will put items on the agenda and accelerate the conversation around proposals.

 At Tearfund we see Rio as an opportunity to:

  • Highlight again the case for urgent action and sustainable solutions on food and agriculture, water and sanitation, energy access, mitigation and finance for adaptation, mitigation;
  • Challenge existing unsustainable policies and life styles;
  • Secure renewed political commitment and leadership for sustainable development and poverty eradication;
  • Lobby our own politicians and the international community to address the numerous interlinked global challenges, such as poverty and climate change;

 Some fear that there is a lack of realisable solutions on the table ahead of Rio. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Green Economy roadmaps, establishing a Sustainable Development Council and strengthening UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) have come to the fore as potential outcomes. Already, the UK government have leant their support to developing the Colombian government’s proposal for SDGs. We are currently discussing this opportunity and it’s numerous implications on, for example, the post-MDG agenda.

What is clear is that business as usual is untenable. Rio +20 and the energy around ‘sustainable development’ is an opportunity to make the existing model obsolete. ‘You can’t solve the problem with the same sort of thinking that created it’ (Einstein) – hence the need to think, for example, in terms of well-being, human flourishing and ‘beyond GDP’ – themes that we explored in our ‘Wholly Living’ report.

Looking ahead, I wait with baited breath for the recommendations of the High Level Panel for Global Sustainability with the launch of their report on 12 January. At the end of January the formal discussions around the Zero Draft will begin.

To make Rio +20 a milestone that delivers it behoves us all to make politicians around the world know that we care and demand action for the sake of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.


  1. […] is right when she says that it must be a work shop rather than a talking shop. My colleague Lis blogged last month on what Rio might deliver. There is potential for a high level declaration on green growth to be […]

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