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Rio+20: A Quick Guide on What to Expect

This week Rio de Janeiro is hosting a gathering of world leaders that will mark the 20th anniversary of the first Rio Earth Summit, where governments agreed on a number of initiatives to address issues related to the environment, poverty, and equity. The first gathering, held in 1992, resulted in several high-profile documents, including Agenda 21, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This year’s conference, known as Rio+20, is guided by three broad goals set by UN General Assembly resolution 64/236:

  • Ensure a renewed political commitment to sustainable development.
  • Assess the progress made to date and the gaps that still exist in implementing the outcomes of key meetings on sustainable development.
  • Address new and emerging challenges.

Guided by these goals, Rio+20 will focus specifically on two themes: A green economy (in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication) and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines a green economy as one that results in “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” In other words, a green economy is characterized as low-carbon, using natural resources efficiently, and being socially inclusive. A key theme of the summit will be the recognition that sustainable development requires a new economy, one that values resource efficiency, clean technologies, and the smart and sustainable use of natural capital. Discussions will thus focus on how governments can best prepare for a transition to a green economy.

The second theme, an institutional framework for sustainable development, will also be a critical discussion point during the summit. A key question will be on the governance of sustainable development, and how to manage the effective implementation and enforcement of sustainable development. Participants are expected to include sustainable development as a core component of UN decision-making, ensuring that sustainable development is integrated throughout UN discussions. A potential outcome could be the creation of a high-level council for sustainable development.

In addition to overall governance, discussions specifically around environmental governance will also be central to the debates. Participants are expected to explore ways of improving the implementation and coordination of multilateral environmental agreements, with a possible outcome being the strengthening of the existing UNEP, which in its current state does not have teeth for enforcement of environmental agreements. Alternatively, the summit may result in the creation of a new body altogether tasked with environmental enforcement.

There are also some expectations that the summit may result in the development of aspirational goals related to sustainable development. These goals would likely focus on issues such as food security, energy, water, land degradation, sustainable livelihoods, disaster risk reduction, oceans, and sustainable cities. A key question will be on when these new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might be introduced, particularly as the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is approaching in 2015. Some concerns exist around the possibility that an early introduction of SDGs might divert attention and resources away from the MDGs.

After all the meetings and deliberations are over, the result of Rio+20 will be a summary document outlining a set of non-binding commitments made by governments. The commitments will be structured around the broad themes of the summit, and will set the overarching agenda for global sustainable development – an outcome that is highly relevant to any organization wishing to succeed in the new green economy.

About the Blogger:

Thomas Singer, Researcher, Corporate Leadership The Conference Board

Thomas Singer, Researcher, Corporate Leadership The Conference Board

Thomas Singer is a researcher in corporate leadership at The Conference Board. His research focuses on corporate social responsibility and sustainability issues. In addition to his work at The Conference Board, Singer serves as an independent consultant advising on corporate sustainability strategy.

Prior to joining The Conference Board, Singer worked with Blu Skye Sustainability Consulting and SustainAbility, helping clients embed sustainability into their core business. Over his career, he has supported engagements with industry leaders across sectors, focusing on strategy development, opportunity assessment, competitive analysis, and stakeholder engagement.

He began his career as a management consultant with Kaiser Associates, advising clients on white space opportunities, competitive analysis, and benchmarking. Singer is a graduate of Tufts University.

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