Twenty years ago, the Rio conference (the Earth Summit) was a breakthrough on the path to sustainable development; after the outcome of Rio+20, the key is follow through. Measured against the urgent need to address a mounting global crisis, there were no breakthroughs at Rio+20. To be sure, there was deep public disappointment that the hundred heads of government and state who came to Rio de Janeiro were unable to take decisive action, but the efforts of the conference could still succeed through the mandated follow-up actions.
While the outcome of the event is a modest agreement, The Future We Want does not itself contain high action points, it does serve to open the potential for important actions. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff called the document a “starting point” and not a “threshold or ceiling” for implementing the path to sustainable development that had to be ambitious and should serve as a legacy for future generations.
Potentially the most important decision in Rio was to set up a high level political forum on sustainable development, to replace the existing Commission on Sustainable Development. The forum would provide political leadership, set the agenda and enable regular dialogue, consider new sustainable development challenges, review progress in implementation and improve coordination in the UN system.
The document also has a large action section on many topics, including water, oceans, biodiversity, food and agriculture, cities, poverty eradication. These contain proposals and promised actions, most of which can be used as guidelines for countries to implement.
A new item in the outcome is the decision to set up sustainable development goals (SDGs). This will be done in the next year through a 30-member working group in the UN nominated by governments. The topics in the goals will include all three aspects of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. Similarly, discussion of the “green economy” concluded with an awareness that the green economy is only one of the tools for sustainable development, that it would not be a rigid set of rules, and that it would have a set of 16 principles including avoidance of trade protection and aid conditionality.
The success of any conference is ultimately determined on the strength of the follow up. Rio+20 could remain a disappointment, or could become the start of something significant. In that sense, Rio+20 has not ended, but only started.