Guest Article #6

The Regional Preparatory Committee Meetings for Rio+20: An Analysis of the Outcomes

With six months to go until the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20), preparations are beginning to intensify as the time for serious negotiations approaches. The conference, which will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm (UNCHE), 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, and 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, is expected to result in a political document that will be adopted by government representatives at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and Government.

General Assembly Resolution 64/236, which established the conference, called for regional preparatory meetings (replacing the bi-annual regional implementation meeting, traditionally being held prior to the review year of the CSD) to be convened in each of the regions served by the five United Nations Regional Economic Commissions. Regional preparatory meetings have become de rigueur for international conferences or summits. They provide governments, regional organizations, Major Groups and other representatives of civil society the opportunity to provide a regional perspective on the themes and outputs.

Consequently, five regional preparatory committee meetings took place between September and December 2011. At each meeting, delegates discussed the Rio+20 themes and adopted a regional contribution to be submitted to the UNCSD Preparatory Committee. It is worth noting that there was unprecedented participation of Major Groups and members of civil society at each of these meetings. This brief analysis of the regional meetings will focus on the two main themes of the UNCSD—a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development—and the discussions on other possible outcomes in Rio. It draws on the Earth Negotiations Bulletin's coverage of each meeting.

A Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication

The “green economy” theme has proven to be a contentious issue in the preparations for Rio+20, including at the regional meetings. During the first PrepCom in May 2010, it was apparent that donors and UNEP believed this topic to have considerable potential, while some members of the Group of 77 and China viewed it with uncertainty and some suspicion. At that time, developing countries noted that they were not clear on what the term really meant, whether it would replace sustainable development, and whether developed countries could use it to impose restrictions on trade or official development assistance (ODA) or otherwise usher in conditionalities or protectionism.

Eighteen months later, the lack of a clear definition of “green economy” had an impact on the regional preparatory meetings. At the Regional Preparatory Meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean (7-9 September 2011, Santiago, Chile), the final outcome does not even reference the “green economy.” Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia strongly opposed the concept, while Colombia, Mexico and some Caribbean countries voiced qualified support. During the meeting, the emerging intermediary position—re-defining the green economy as a tool or mechanism for achieving sustainable development while avoiding outright definition of the concept—gained acceptance, although not enough to be included in the final outcome.

This intermediary or compromise position proved to be more successful at the Preparatory Meeting for the Arab Region (16-17 October 2011, Cairo, Egypt), where delegates highlighted the lack of a universal definition and agreed to identify green economy as a tool to achieve sustainable development rather than replace it. The meeting's recommendations spelled out an elaborate list of conditions for the use of any future green economy concept. Some countries, stressing the economic and social opportunities of moving towards a green economy, referred to various beneficial ongoing activities that can be seen as part of or contributing to this transition, such as the creation of low-carbon cities. The United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco, in particular, highlighted various activities contributing to a green economy, such as green buildings and sustainable transport. However, as was the case in Santiago, there was much concern in Cairo about the possibility of the green economy being used as an excuse by developed countries to impose trade conditionalities and barriers.

At the Preparatory Meeting for the Asia-Pacific Region (19-20 October 2011, Seoul, Republic of Korea), the green economy theme fared even better. In fact, green economy references in the Seoul outcome constitute almost one-third of the entire text, and are easily the most substantive. Nevertheless, many developing countries in the region clearly remain wary of the idea. China stressed countries' unique circumstances and rejected any “one-size-fits all” approach, while India tried to return the conversation to developed countries' actions (or alleged lack thereof). Russian negotiators were probably the most vocal critics, raising a variety of definitional concerns. On the other side, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Australia, among others, expressed support for the concept and may have created at least a superficial impression that the green economy had fairly widespread support in the region.

Delegates at the African Regional Preparatory Meeting (20-25 October 2011, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) supported the concept of green economy, with the caveat that it needs more definition. They also agreed that transitioning to a green economy should not result in protectionism or trade conditionalities. And they noted that there is a need for enabling environments, and sustainable land management should be a part of the green economy framework.

The concept of a green economy roadmap, which has been proposed by the European Union, was mentioned in Santiago, Seoul and Addis Ababa, but gained the most traction at the Economic Commission for Europe Regional Preparatory Meeting (1-2 December 2011, Geneva, Switzerland). Proponents argued that the roadmap should be inclusive and take into account transboundary considerations, the needs of countries in transition, and a focus on poverty eradication and sustainable development. The US, in particular, was not prepared to endorse a roadmap and there was some disagreement on whether nuclear energy should play a part in a green economy roadmap. However, the report from the Geneva preparatory meeting was the only regional submission containing reference to the green economy roadmap.

Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

Discussions on the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD) took a different direction than those on the green economy theme. The overarching theme in country statements was the need for the IFSD to achieve balance between the three pillars of sustainable development, with a number of representatives lamenting chronic inattention to the social and economic pillars of sustainable development. As might be expected, many speakers emphasized the importance of regional institutions, the importance of regional cooperation, and a growing recognition of region-specific challenges in achieving sustainable development. Some called for strengthening the regional economic commissions. There was also much discussion on the need to facilitate national and regional level implementation of sustainable development policies as well as the need to reconstitute national sustainable development commissions.

With regard to the IFSD at the international level, a number of options emerged from the five regional meetings, with varying levels of support.  Emerging proposals included: eliminating the Commission on Sustainable Development (which was created following the 1992 UNCED) and replacing it with a new Sustainable Development Council; strengthening the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) or changing ECOSOC's mandate; and strengthening UNEP (which was created following the 1972 UNCHE). With the exception of the discussions on UNEP and international environmental governance, few specific details for institutional reform emerged. One proposal was put forward by Palestine and Iraq during the Cairo meeting, calling for the proposed Sustainable Development Council to have three committees, one for each pillar of sustainable development.

The question of UNEP's future status, which was forwarded to Rio+20 by the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum in February 2011, was the subject of much discussion. In Santiago, Cuba submitted a proposal on IFSD containing two components. The first component addresses the strengthening of UNEP to provide it with more visibility and financial resources, which implies the streamlining of responsibilities and eliminating overlaps, duplication and lack of coherence, and increasing the participation of scientists from developing countries. The second component addresses the strengthening of the IFSD, including the modification of relevant mandates and eliminating the CSD. UNEP's Global Ministerial Environment Forum would become a Global Ministerial Sustainable Development Forum, which would: be a high-level space for dialogue and attended by ministries of environment, economy and social areas; meet in New York annually, assisted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and UNEP; and report to ECOSOC and, through ECOSOC, to the UN General Assembly.

In Cairo, no detailed proposals emerged, but Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and others said that existing organizations should be evaluated to determine whether they can meet expectations in the future, and that the focus should not be on “changing the names” of organizations. There was also concern about the lack of political will to establish a new international environmental organization. The Cairo recommendations call for a focus on activating and making optimal use of existing institutions at both the regional and international levels prior to considering the possibility of creating new institutions; and enhancing coordination among national, regional and international frameworks, and between UN agencies and bodies.

In Seoul, the Chair's summary refers to UNEP's role in environmental governance. In this context, universal membership and predictable funding for UNEP are noted as important in the short-term, while in the long run a review of options for elevating its status to a global environmental organization is mentioned. While some countries did support a proposal to create a World Environment Organization or UN Environment Organization, some of the larger countries in the region were not as supportive of elevating UNEP's status in this way.

In Addis Ababa, there was a growing consensus on “considering the need” to strengthen, consolidate and transform UNEP into an “international specialized institution” for the environment based in Nairobi, Kenya. The African Ministers also called for this “international specialized institution” to: have universal membership; be an autonomous body; have secure, stable, additional and predictable financing; have increased authority to bring coordination and coherence to the range of multilateral environmental agreements; have a strengthened regional presence, and improved implementation at the national level through the development of operational capacity; have the authority to lead a process of UN system-wide strategic planning for the environment; promote the science-policy interface; and enhance capacity and technology support.

The Co-Chairs' Summary from Geneva notes the lack of agreement on institutional options at the global level. However, there was agreement on the need to strengthen UNEP, the CSD and ECOSOC. Many delegations preferred to transform UNEP into a specialized agency, WEO or UNEO; some mentioned the creation of a Sustainable Development Council possibly to undertake a periodic review for sustainable development and that could subsume the CSD; and others called for a World Environment Court. There was also a call for an intergovernmental panel on sustainable development modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The US, in particular, called for strengthening UNEP's efficiency and resources rather than its transformation into a new environmental organization.

Based on the regional meetings, while there is not universal support for transforming UNEP into a WEO or UNEO, there is agreement that UNEP should be strengthened. Possible modalities include giving the UNEP Governing Council universal membership, and/or giving UNEP an assessed budget. With regard to the broader concept of sustainable development governance, there appears to be a growing consensus to replace, transform or strengthen the CSD. There was also a consensus among regional meeting participants to strengthen regional sustainable development governance and re-establish or re-invigorate national sustainable development commissions.

Other Themes and Outputs

Sustainable Development Goals. In Santiago, at the September regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia and Guatemala put forth a proposal to define a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to their submission, these goals would seek to provide benchmarks and references for sustainable development and could be based on indicators adjusted to national realities and priorities. The SDGs would be relevant in identifying gaps and needs for countries, including in terms of means of implementation, strengthening institutions and capacity building. They suggested Rio+20 could provide an agreement on the overall objectives of the SDGs, prioritizing critical issues such as poverty eradication, and providing a mandate to continue developing them, but would not negotiate the full set of SDGs. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and SDGs could be complementary, but Rio+20 would also need to define their relationship.

This proposal for SDGs did not generate much attention during the Africa and Arab Regional meetings, which did not call specifically for a new set of SDGs. In Seoul, the Chair's summary takes note of the proposal to develop sustainable development goals. At this meeting, Indonesia expressed concern during the discussions that negotiating specific sustainable development goals may “bog down” Rio+20, but suggested that there could be an agreement in principle to do so. Proposals for consideration of SDGs appeared to gain further traction in Geneva, in December, where the Co-Chairs' summary highlights the need to come to a consensus on targets and goals, including SDGs.

Blue Economy. The idea that the blue (oceans) economy be considered as an integral part of the green economy was proposed by Fiji, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States at PrepCom II in March 2011. Then, over the summer, the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) held three subregional preparatory meetings for Rio+20 where the concept of the blue economy took center stage. The Caribbean SIDS, at their meeting in June in Guyana, discussed the need for a blue economy addressing oceans and related issues. The Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and South China Sea (AIMS) SIDS, in July in the Seychelles, called for further refining the concept of the blue-green economy in the context of the subregion through additional research and analysis. The Pacific meeting, in Samoa in July, called for the development of a regional green growth roadmap, which should prominently feature the conservation and sustainable management of all marine and ocean resources, as well as terrestrial resources.

However, at the regional preparatory meetings convened by the UN regional economic commissions and others, there was scant reference to the blue economy. At the Asia-Pacific meeting, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand specifically raised the issue and welcomed it, and the Chair's summary notes that the theme of “greening economies in the blue world” was also mentioned, particularly in the context of the Pacific and coastal communities. But there was no real discussion of oceans or the blue economy in Cairo, Santiago, Addis Ababa or Geneva.

The 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production. When delegates at the last meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development, in May 2011, failed to adopt an agreed outcome, including the largely negotiated 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production, many expressed hope that it would be adopted as an outcome of Rio+20. During discussions on green economy at the regional level, recurring themes included both the need for sustainable consumption patterns (SCP) in developed countries and the Ten-year Framework. The adopted conclusions in Santiago called for “a change in patterns of production and consumption, in which developed countries should play a leading role. Delegates in Addis Ababa called for agreement on a Global 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production to promote sustainable development at Rio+20. In Geneva, the Co-Chairs' summary notes the need for a fundamental change in consumption and production patterns, including the need to reduce absolute levels of resource consumption and adoption of the 10-Year Framework of Programmes for Sustainable Consumption and Production.” In Cairo, however, Saudi Arabia opposed a proposal by Yemen to add reference to the Marrakech process on SCP, noting there was no agreement at CSD 19.

New Treaties. Because the negotiation of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity took place in parallel to the preparations for UNCED and were opened for signature in Rio, and the negotiated outcome from that 1992 event called for the development of a Convention to Combat Desertification, these three multilateral environmental agreements have since been considered “Rio Conventions.” As a result, some discussions regarding possible outcomes from Rio+20 have considered whether new treaties should be stimulated and linked to the process. The first four of the regional preparatory committee meetings, however, did not raise new treaties as possible outcome options. In Geneva, however, European delegates suggested that two of their own regional treaties could serve as models for future global treaties. The first was the 1991 Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context and its 2033 Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment. The second was the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which was said to be a model global treaty for environmental democracy and the operationalization of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. The Co-Chairs' summary from the ECE regional meeting also suggests that this treaty, adopted by members of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, could be opened to countries outside of the region. However, the US, who complained that its views were not always reflected in the Co-Chairs' Summary, observed that the Aarhus Convention is not the only way to implement Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and did not support launching new negotiations.

The Way Forward to a Rio+20 Outcome

The regional preparatory meetings represent only one part of the multi-faceted preparations for Rio+20. The Secretariat received over 679 submissions for inclusion in a compilation document, which will serve as the basis for the “zero draft” of the Rio+20 outcome document. These submissions included the outputs from the five regional meetings, as well as submissions from 100 member States, 5 political groups, 72 United Nations agencies and IGOs, and 497 Major Groups. When delegates convene for the second Intersessional Meeting on 15 December 2011 in New York, they will take the next step and discuss the structure of the “zero draft,” which will serve as the basis for negotiations beginning in January 2012. The Secretariat has already announced that besides the two main themes for Rio+20, the seven priority areas for which the Conference will also assess progress for sustainable development are as follows:

  • Combating poverty, including through green jobs and promoting social inclusion;
  • Advancing food security and sustainable agriculture;
  • Sound water management;
  • Energy access including from renewable sources, as well as efficiency and sustainability;
  • Sustainable human settlements;
  • Management of oceans; and
  • Improving resilience and disaster preparedness.

Not all of the regional preparatory meetings discussed all of these issues, which reflect varying regional priorities heading into the negotiations of the outcome document for Rio+20. How these issues and the two main themes evolve in the “zero draft” and the subsequent negotiations will be shaped by governments, Major Groups and UN and other intergovernmental organizations, as well as the Bureau and the Secretariat, over the next six months. Yet, if the experience of the regional preparatory meetings demonstrates anything, it is that the outcome document for Rio+20 will have to reflect a world with very different regional priorities.