“It’s better than nothing.” This was the general resigned tone of the remarks heard at the conclusion of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro on June 22nd, 2012. Others echoed a bleaker outlook, proclaiming that the past twenty years of large UN conferences had merely resulted in the pointless exercise of talking the talk without walking the walk ad infinitum.
The result from the countless preparatory meeting sessions and tedious negotiations is Resolution 66/288 – The Future We Want. All UN member states adopted the resolution document which serves, amongst other things, as the foundation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The prospective SDGs are considered as one the most promising outcomes of the Rio+20 UN negotiations and are supposed to advance sustainable development for all UN members along three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. The widespread understanding is that the SDGs will supersede the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and providing universal primary education – all by the target date of 2015. At this point in time, however, the SDGs have not been defined yet.
Whatever sentiment you deem more appropriate at this point, it may be too early for a final judgement call about Rio+20’s impact. Nonetheless, six months later, it begs the question: where are we today?
The Follow-Through: From Words to Actions
Sustainable development presupposes cooperation across the board on a local, regional and global level. Therefore, the advancement of the SDGs and “The Future We Want” is heavily dependent on the effective collaboration among numerous UN agencies. That is precisely the task of the Executive Committee of Economic and Social Affairs (ECESA Plus). Chaired by the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Mr. Sha Zukang, who also was the Secretary-General of the Rio+20 Conference, ECESA Plus aims to coordinate the actions of 50+ UN agencies involved in post Rio+20 activities. In addition, since the UN has also made it a point to actively engage with civil society, ECESA Plus has created a sustainable development knowledge platform to inform the public about ongoing progress towards sustainable development.
On a political level, implementation is – as expected – very slow. At the Rio+20 Conference, the international community decided to establish a high-level political forum for sustainable development. Decisions on mandate, form and methods of work were adopted during the 67th session of the General Assembly (September 2012). As a first priority, the President of the General Assembly asked Brazil to coordinate the establishment of a 30 member Open Working Group for Sustainable Development by September as required by the Rio+20 outcome document. The aim of this group is to create a proposal for sustainable development goals for consideration and appropriate action to be submitted to the General Assembly at its 68th session.
Even though the Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) has coordinated a set of special events to facilitate the formation of the Open Working Group, the five UN Regional Groups have so far been unable to come to agreement upon the number of seats each member will have. At an open dialogue forum with representatives of Civil Society on November 26th in New York, UN General Assembly President Vuk Jeremić expressed disappointment that the Open Working Group has not yet been created or started working, but declared that it must be formed by the end of 2012 to begin work in January 2013. Stakeholder engagement in the Open Working Group has not yet been considered, but Jeremić suggested that he will encourage the Open Working Group to consult with the Major Groups in its work.
Reactions from the Front Lines
While the negotiations on the Open Working Group are continuing without much visible progress, members of civil society are becoming increasingly impatient. Christopher Stampar, who has been on the front lines of the Rio+20 follow-up process as a member of civil society and as Director of International Partnership Development with I.D.E.A.S. for US, relayed the following opinion to me after attending the UNEP Stakeholder Forum on Sustainable Development in October:
“After having attended several major UN conferences this year, we continue to discuss the same things over and over again. For issues like climate change, for instance, we aren’t waiting on any major scientific breakthroughs to solve; we know what we need to do. The problem is simple. There is a fundamental lack of political will to actually tackle our biggest problems. We’ve had plenty of conversations of what we need to do as a global society, now we just need our governments to actually implement it.”
So if we have the solutions and the climate crisis is unfolding, why aren’t we moving faster? A senior economic advisor at the UN in New York explained it to me as follows:
“For those who observe the UN process from the outside, it appears slow and inefficient. But you are making this judgement based on the assumption that the world we operate in is one guided by desirability. Whatever you desire, can be achieved. The UN and politics at large, however, execute within the confines of the world of feasibility. So you can rarely achieve what is desirable, but you can fight for the best possible outcome, given certain feasibility constraints.”
Since there is often only a small overlap between “feasible” and “desirable” outcomes, the UN can only move in small steps on a global level. But for you and me, as members of civil society, this is not where the story ends. Rather, it’s where it begins.
Two Paths of Action
Each one of us is confronted with two choices to put our world on a path towards sustainable development. If you’re passionate about global action within the “world of feasibility,” you may want to follow the example of Chris Stampar. A college student in his early twenties, Chris attends UN stakeholder conferences and collaborates with over 40 US universities by heading the I.D.E.A.S partnership development, and pushes for a stronger implementation focus on the political front. If this is the road you choose, consider getting involved with Civicus, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation taking up a position at the UN, volunteering for one of the many UN non-profit partners or applying for a student reporter position at one of the upcoming UN Conferences.
Secondly, you may opt for local action with a focus on building the “world of desirability” in your community at home. First and foremost, lead by example and reduce your personal ecological footprint by focusing on those areas where humans have the biggest impact: energy use as well as water and food waste. Helpful starting points are WWF’s list of sustainable actions and this guide to environmental labels.
Lastly, make an effort to contribute by volunteering for a local NGO that tackles environmental issues. Create your own awareness-raising initiative for members in your community or support entrepreneurial ventures in the green innovation area. A treasure trove of inspiration for “Sustainability in Action” can be accessed here and here. Finally, I’d also suggest checking out Power Shift, the world’s largest upcoming conference for training climate activists.
These options form, of course, not an exhaustive list. Rather, they are but the beginning, a scratch on the surface. Whatever action we deem appropriate, we must never forget that the sustainability challenges we face today are man-made. Hence, we can undo them if we want to. And the key lies in this simple four letter word: ‘want.’
Rio+20 and its follow-up process is first and foremost a matter of willingness. Willingness to take action on a global level. Willingness to take action on a local level. Willingness to stop being indifferent. After all, you could just close this tab and disengage. But as Jane Goodall, Edward Norton, and Richard Branson all told me earlier this year, it would be unacceptable to let fear defeat hope. Enacting change starts with believing that humanity is fully capable of setting the world on a sustainable course within your lifetime. And ends with actively becoming part of the solution today.