Jacob Scherr, Global Strategy & Advocacy
It is the start of a new year and the time for making resolutions to change our ways. Yet we all know how hard it is to give up old habits. This reality was evidenced by the just released zero draft of the output document for the Rio+20 (Earth Summit).
Following a well-established pattern, the zero draft alone provides little promise that the gathering of world leaders in Rio de Janeiro (June 20-22) will fulfil the UN’s desire to generate the political will needed to move the world off its current trajectory towards a degraded planet less able to meet human needs. Rio+20 must be about much more than just another document. The next Earth Summit needs to stimulate real accountable actions that put humanity on a more sustainable path.
The zero draft is truly just a very preliminary vision. It was prepared by a group of experienced diplomats and officials at the UN, based on submissions from a 100 governments and more than 500 civil society and other entities, and two days of discussions at a preparatory meeting in December. Over the next five months, this document could be expected to be the subject of hundreds of hours of intensive negotiations.
The 19-page zero draft, optimistically titled ‘The Future We Want’, already has too much jargon and repetition and too many abstract incremental promises and far off goals. Given the experience with past UN mega-conferences, there is a real danger that by the time the leaders get to Rio, they will be asked to endorse a document that will have ballooned in length to more than 100 pages. There will be strong pressures to accommodate the desires of various governments and interests to make sure that their issue or concern is at least mentioned. The few potential gems in the zero draft (my colleague Lisa Speer has blogged about the draft’s promising language on the high seas) could easily get lost in a deluge of vague promises. Worse yet, based on the record of the last four decades, there is little guarantee that governments will follow through on these negotiated grand plans.
So here is the plea NRDC has been making to officials, negotiators, and fellow civil society advocates: Make this summit different. Keep the final Rio+20 declaration short and sweet. We all need to focus on what will make this Summit transformative – let’s create the expectation that each of the leaders will come to Rio with commitments to specific actions which produce real near-term results for which someone can be held accountable.
Let’s not waste time arguing over matters that has been debated repeatedly over the last 40 years. Let’s ask the presidents and prime ministers to focus on a handful of truly international structural issues – such as upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme, setting clear and measureable sustainable development goals, and moving much more quickly to secure protections for our high seas.
It is the very first and very last paragraphs of the zero draft which gives me most hope that we can break with the routines of the past and make the next Earth Summit truly historic and ground-breaking. The first indicates that presidents and prime ministers will be expected to come to Rio+20. Our very top leaders need to make a powerful, clear showing that they are really serious about working together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet. They need to inspire governors, mayors, executives, and other leaders also to be engaged and take action. They need to instil real hope, particularly in young people, that we can make a very rapid transition to a low-carbon green economy.
The very last paragraph calls upon the Secretary General to create a registry of Rio+20 commitments as an ‘accountability framework.’ Our hope is that hundreds, if not thousands, of such specific promises will be made in Rio on all of the various issues of deep concern to civil society. And – as NRDC proposed at the UN in December – the Secretary General will use modern information technologies to let citizens around the world see what countries and others are pledging, what progress is being made, and where there are needs for more attention and action. Such a web-based directory would help fulfil the Secretary General’s own New Year’s resolution when he said, “Technology outpaces our current thinking, peoples’ ideas and our current way of working…We have to make our Organization more nimble, more efficient and effective, and transparent and accountable.”
With less than 160 days left before the Rio+20 Earth Summit, each of our world leaders still has a chance to break the comfortable habits of the past and become a hero in confronting the greatest of challenges – improving the quality of human life and protecting our planetary home. This is one test where inevitably some leaders will do better than others, but we are all at risk if we do not demand that they all take real action now towards a future we want.