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One Year After Rio+20: Are We On the Path to the "Future We Want"?

John Romano

Posted June 20, 2013 in Environmental Justice, Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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Exactly one year ago, world leaders came together in Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development to address a wide range of cross-cutting environmental, social and economic challenges that we face today. The conference marked twenty years since the original Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992, where world leaders of yesterday’s generation began their journey to work together towards “Our Common Future.” 

The outcomes of the Rio+20 conference were widely met with disappointment from many civil society groups. They found the conference’s negotiated text – boldly titled “The Future We Want” – too weak and proclaimed the conference a “failure.” However, this pessimistic perspective does not fully reflect the potentially game-changing outcomes from the conference – most notably the hundreds of partnerships, initiatives, networks and clubs/coalitions (PINCs) committed at the conference. These commitments are valued at more than $500 billion and were made by a range of actors, including national governments, multilateral development banks, and major corporations, including Unilever, Nike, Microsoft, Chevron, Coca-Cola, and Proctor and Gamble, among many others.

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(Photo credit: John Romano)

This month also marks one year since NRDC launched its “Cloud of Commitments” initiative, with the aim of tracking progress on implementation of some of the key PINCs resulting from Rio+20.

Last week NRDC attended a meeting hosted by the United Nations bringing together the various Rio+20 commitment platforms, including the UN Global Compact, Sustainable Energy for All, Every Woman Every Child, the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), and the UN Division for Sustainable Development. All of the commitment platforms recognized that these commitments needed to be “SMART” – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound – and that a robust accountability framework is required to ensure that these commitments are implemented as promised.

Rio+20 also launched an “Open Working Group”  at the UN for the development of a set of “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which expire in 2015.  (See Jacob Scherr’s recent blog on two recent high-level reports on the SDGs and their relationship to the climate treaty negotiations.)  

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Open Working Group on SDGs (Photo Credit: Major Group for Children and Youth)

As evident in the discussions so in the Open Working Group, there is an increasing number of countries that recognize the need to engage the full range of actors, including international agencies,  regional and local governments, the private sector and civil society, to ensure that these new goals are to be   achieved. The world has changed tremendously in the past two decades and it is now clearer than ever that these non-globally-negotiated arrangements - these PINCs - are the critical means of implementation for sustainable development.

We no longer have time to ask “what CAN we do?” It is now time to consider “what ARE we doing?” The SDGs could provide the vision for where the world will go in this next critical decade. They have the potential to serve as the catalyst to drive the transformational changes that we need, and PINCs will be the vehicles for action to make these changes. The good news is that there are already thousands of PINCS all around the world being undertaken by a wide range of stakeholders that are making significant progress in shaping a world in which the “Future We Want” is more than just a catchy slogan. Rio+20 may not have resulted in the paradigm shift that we were so desperately seeking; but it has strengthened the global sustainability movement and has laid the groundwork for a more rapid and effective transition to a low-carbon green economy and a sustainable future. 

(The assistance of Brendan Guy and Jacob Scherr is gratefully acknowledged.) 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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