Rio+20 didn’t go far enough - what now?
“Before the conference, you asked me what I wanted to see at Rio+20. I told you that I wanted world leaders to step up, look into each others’ eyes and recognise the urgency, recognise what is at stake. Did this happen? I don’t think so.”
Gro Harlem Brundtland reflects on Rio+20 and asks how we can keep the momentum going in the drive to make sustainable development a reality; the Elders and Youngers offer their responses.
After spending time with the four of you in Brazil, I know how frustrated you all are with the outcome of Rio+20. I completely understand this feeling.
But we must not let this be the end of the story. Rio+20 may have failed to do what we all believe it should have done – to change the path we are on and ensure we develop in a sustainable and equitable way. This makes our task more difficult now, and more urgent. But I know that far from becoming disillusioned, you and your peers will work harder than ever to drive the change we need.
Not what we had hoped for
Before the conference, you asked me what I wanted to see at Rio+20. I told you that I wanted world leaders to step up, look into each others’ eyes and recognise the urgency, recognise what is at stake.
Did this happen? I don’t think so. In fact, on many issues we saw strong pressure to backslide and undo some of the commitments that had already been agreed in previous years.
As a result, the final ‘The Future we Want’ Outcome Document was unambitious and lacking in tangible commitments to ensure sustainable development and protect the environment. Significant omissions included the failure to include language on reproductive rights - which, let us be clear, is a step backwards. And for those of us who fear that we are racing towards a tipping point, beyond which the damage to our environment and ecosystems is truly irreversible, this document offers little comfort.
There are hopeful signs too, of course. I was encouraged by the last-minute announcement that a ‘special representative for future generations’ is going to be appointed by the UN Secretary-General. This is something that is important, necessary, and furthermore that young people have been calling for very strongly.
The declaration also provides for the creation of Sustainable Development Goals. Now, however, we must make sure that we demand clarity on how exactly this process is going to work. The Goals must have clear, measurable targets and indicators across the economic, social and environmental pillars that encompass the true meaning of sustainable development.
We must build something better
As I said, I understand the frustration. But what encourages me is that this frustration only seems to have strengthened your resolve to do better.
Yes, the UN is a very big beast; it doesn’t move as quickly as we would like. But over the decades I have spent working to bring sustainable development into our global institutions, we have already come a long way. You are the ones who will push us further.
Your impatience is a good thing, because it gives you drive and energy. But in Rio we were not just inspired by your passion, but by your dedication, and your long-term vision. This is what will pay off in the end.
I remember that Sara asked me during our first conversation back in May whether a total failure at Rio+20 would actually be better than a weak outcome, because at least that would spur greater action. Well, we got a weak outcome. But it seems to have had exactly that effect in any case: to motivate you all even further.
The Outcome Document is far from perfect, but it is what we have. Let us take the good parts and run with them – as my fellow Elder Mary Robinson says, the real legacy of Rio+20 will be the mobilisation of civil society to build the future we desire.
I think that you Youngers are to be congratulated. You have showed yourselves over these past months to be more forward-thinking, more progressive and more global in your outlook than many governments. Now, I turn the questions back to you.
How did you feel, the day that the summit ended?
What are your next steps now – how will you keep the momentum going in your work to make sustainable development a reality?
Rio was for me a personal journey of discovery and inspiration. While on a plane heading back to Lagos, I read your reflection on the outcome of Rio+20 and I couldn't help calling it 'a letter to my children', because as always you wrote from your heart. I could mentally picture you saying those words you have written to us, holding our hands and telling to keep pushing for a more sustainable future.
I stared out of the window feeling inspired. I was thinking of the many young people like us the Youngers who have registered our deep disappointment and frustration with the outcome of Rio; yet who believed that Rio+20 taught us something. It gave us a stronger belief in ourselves, in our ability to fight harder for the future we want with a new, different approach.
We have the ability to connect, to care, to question without fear, to think long-term as you have mentioned. This is our strength: we just need a new approach and the necessary support to turn our inspiration and dedication into actions.
As a reproductive rights activist, I recall many of my fellow activists reacting to the exclusion of reproductive rights from the Outcome Document the best way they could: by lobbying, blogging, tweeting and asking for help from governments that supported reproductive rights over a month ago at the UN Commission on Population and Development, where they agreed on a landmark resolution to protect and support the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents and youth.
It was heart-breaking to see governments go back on this commitment.
Excluding reproductive rights from the Outcome Document means that young women and men won’t have the right to make decisions about their sexuality, about whether or when to have children. They won’t have the right to a safe sex life, free from diseases. Their right to make these decisions will not be protected they will not be free from stigma and coercion.
Organisations like Population Action International, Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, Sierra Club and Advocates for Youth are working to lobby and advocate for the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls, and continue to push for these as fundamental human rights.
I will continue to join their efforts in pushing for the rights of young people back home.
As I head back to Lagos, where young people make up over 50 per cent of the population, I think about the many young girls and boys faced with unemployment, a poor health care system and most recently the heavy downpour of rain that destroyed homes and businesses without any measures of adaptation or support.
The impact of climate change will make life harder. This is not the future we want.
So what are my next steps?
Having seen the heavy rains and resultant flooding in Lagos, the first thing I will do is to organise a meeting with the members of the Nigerian Youth Climate Coalition, a network of young people committed to fighting for a safe climate future in Nigeria. We will begin to strategise our engagement with the good parts of the outcome of Rio+20, and prepare for the COP18 (the 18th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).
We will keep pushing for the future we truly want.
Dear Gro, Esther and all,
I will start by answering Gro's difficult question: how did I feel the day that the summit ended? I cannot say if I felt good or bad, because these feelings were very mixed due to the huge amount of things that happened in Rio. But after dedicating more than one year of my life to activities related to Rio+20, I can surely say it was worth it.
The downside is that, even though no one had high expectations, the results brought by governments and the multilateral system were undoubtedly frustrating. There is no need to repeat what has already been said by Gro, Esther and many others – it is clear that negotiators and heads of state did not deliver what was needed from them.
And although representatives of the UN and several governments insist that simply reaching an agreement and not moving backwards on previous commitments (which isn't 100 per cent true) was already a success, we cannot be satisfied with that. As pointed out by Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, keeping commitments at the same level in a progressively more degraded context means moving backwards in practical terms.
Still, as Gro said, we have what we have, and from now on we need to work hard to guarantee that even small advancements made possible by ‘The Future we Want’ Outcome Document will get implemented. Many processes were left open for the years to come, and it is time to analyse the results and see which opportunities they bring us.
Fortunately, Rio+20 was not limited to the UN summit – and the countless parallel processes and side events may have been more important than what happened inside the conference centre. Civil society had a unique chance to connect, share and make its voice heard. Every day when I read the news or surfed the internet it was comforting to see that, although many were trying to sell false solutions or convince us that insufficient results were a success, our message was there loud and clear.
We have much to think about and to work on. Rio+20 generated endless possibilities for cooperation, among actors from the most diverse realities, and we cannot lose the connections that were made possible by an event with such big dimensions. Rio+20 was marked by thousands of independent commitments and actions by NGOs, social movements, local governments, the scientific community, forward-thinking entrepreneurs, jurists and many others.
Rio+20 made it clear how complex sustainable development debates have become, showing that we cannot keep thinking or operating the way we did 40, 20 or even 10 years ago. Rio+20 was also another opportunity to clearly see that our governments have not been adequately representing the people or delivering what is needed to guarantee a prosperous future for everyone, so massive mobilisation processes such as the Arab Spring and Occupy have to keep growing.
One can say that the final result brought by governments was a failure, but Rio+20 as a whole was not. Still, we need to care about the future of the multilateral system and how to make governments reach not any agreements, but effective ones, because we don't have time for vague rhetoric anymore.
Fortunately, I'm sure Rio+20 left us with enough energy to keep pushing hard.
Thank you for your article, which shares our frustration. The time back in Oslo and Rio was a real inspiration for me personally and many other young friends in China. We are all inspired by the Elders who have dedicated their whole lives to the path of sustainable development. We have also been inspired by the other three Youngers who are doing the same. Thank you all!
Regarding the conference outcome: I had never felt so gloomy, even before the summit had started.
I have been to these kinds of UN negotiations several times as a policy tracker. But this time I had nothing to track at the summit since the negotiation had already been concluded! The document presented to us was merely another stack of paper recognising our challenges, without showing much courage to meet them. I spent the last three days expressing my outrage and disappointment, and with a sense that I was wasting time there.
The Secretary-General called the summit a "once-in-a-generation opportunity". Obviously, we just missed it.
I was, however, encouraged that thanks to a large media team from China ‒ mostly state-owned companies ‒ the result of Rio+20 was not depicted as a major success and the strong criticism from numerous NGOs was known by millions in the country.
Currently, I'm taking two summer courses at Harvard University, both related to the global crises of environment, food and energy. It shocked me, as I was going through the facts and analysis, to see how the world is taking an unsustainable path and how these crises are linked to one another. I can hardly imagine what our world will look like in just 30 years, with 2 billion more people.
People are very concerned with the challenges ahead but the Rio+20 summit hasn't delivered the ambitious action plan we urgently need. Its failure has also further diverted people away from the UN multinational process, which was expected to be important for the building of "global governance". I didn't see much success out of Rio.
So: next steps? I believe our dear Mary's prediction shall be right, when she said: "for the following few years, the world is going to see a wave of global civil society mobilisation" for sustainable development. Yes, I believe the future momentum for change rests in the people, and I'd like to be part of the global movement. I will take advantage of social media to share outstanding ideas and the inconvenient truth.
At the end of this summer, I'm going to participate in a fellowship camp at Harvard, the theme of which will be civil society and social innovation in China. After that, I'm going to take a gap year to do field research in South Asia about "NGOs’ roles in environmental campaigns". At the same time, I hope to continue negotiation tracking and energy policy analysis work.
Dear Gro, we are grateful to have you, the great earth fighter, with us. Let's keep the faith and optimism that an overall paradigm shift will come to meet these overwhelming challenges.
Rio+20 ended already a month ago, and for me the past weeks have been full of positive energy.
While indeed I’m as frustrated as all of you with the lack of urgency in the official outcome document, I’m even more inspired by the positive power of people who are not deterred. Rio+20 delivered far from everything we wanted, but we knew from the beginning that one summit alone could never solve all the problems of the world. Having come together, we now keep moving forward in numbers with decisive action!
I’m back in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) office in Nairobi, happily surrounded by genuine people who believe in change. The Major Group of Children & Youth has reconvened online to reflect on our work in Rio and strengthen our movement. I have joined my Kenyan host family in welcoming a newborn baby to this world – a tiny ‘younger-than-youngers’ who will be 20 years old at Rio+40. Many good reasons to not lose hope!
Here are my concrete next steps:
Next 20 seconds: Move deeply into the ‘now’ and feel thankful for being alive and able to act at this crucial time in history.
20 minutes: Write down my reflections about the Elders+Youngers initiative. For me this intergenerational dialogue has been an experience to value forever. I want to share tools and ideas to make similar empowering exchanges happen between others.
20 days: While I’m still with UNEP in Nairobi, I will contribute to their proactive post-Rio agenda. When it comes to civil society engagement, UNEP has the ambition to become a model organisation that can serve as an example and guide other UN entities. A great opportunity for innovative ideas!
20 weeks: From September-December 2012, I will follow closely what happens in the UN General Assembly. Since the Rio+20 outcome document lacks concrete wording, it will be taken further and interpreted there. Those of us who know what change we want need to use every opportunity to keep up the pressure.
20 months: In the next few years I will do all what I can to increase the willingness, understanding and capacity of fellow young people around the world to unlock the potential for sustainable development. Every young person must get prepared to find unity in diversity and welcome inclusive, transformative change.
Because in 20 years: Today’s generation of ‘youngers’ will be the ones holding most leadership positions in all sectors of society. Since we are already used to collaborating globally, the decisions we make together will be value-based for the greater good. It will be time to celebrate that we have overcome national boundaries to stay within planetary boundaries. The paradigm shift will have taken place and the sustainable future will be near.
See you at Rio+40!
You are all clearly disappointed. So was I, as were all of those who came in great hope that we would see the right political leadership in Rio.
But I am also heartened to find that you all sound so energised and determined to build on the small things Rio+20 did deliver. That is absolutely essential, and it is a message anyone reading should take away from this dialogue: disillusionment can be dangerous – that is how people lose energy, and how movements lose momentum.
Rather, our frustration should channel that same incredible vitality we saw from many different constituencies at the summit. I think, in fact, that this is precisely where we are headed: a genuine movement in favour of sustainable development made up of ‘constituencies of demand’, as I call them – women’s groups, young people’s groups, and other grassroots organisations and the private sector with a clear shared agenda to push sustainable development objectives.
One of the positive impressions from the conference was, in fact, that the private sector and civil society felt it could come together as never before. Organisations big and small, from the global North and South, looked determined to take stock, collaborate and coordinate in ways that will be more constructive than before.
The targets of our focus and energy are clear. As Gro has pointed out, there is an opportunity to influence the substance of the Sustainable Development Goals – we have to make sure there are strong targets and commitments made by governments, that these are measurable, and that they will be ready for the MDG Summit of 2013 that will review the Millennium Development Goals.
We also have to keep an eye on the high-level political forum on sustainable development which Rio+20 created, and whose remit will be worked out between now and 2013.
I feel energised by the clear objectives ahead of us. Clearly the Youngers do too, and so should everyone else reading. As Elders, we expect nothing less!
The weakness of the language in the final Rio+20 declaration is simple to understand: it showed a lack of real commitment to finding solutions.
Leaders use this kind of language to postpone big decisions -- and often underestimate the damage they create in doing so. In this case, the issues at stake are the major collective problems of our time: challenges of such a scale that leaders preferred to draft something weak and compromised, and defer the difficult decisions to another day.
So to be frank with you, I also find it difficult to look at the text and claim any significant success: sadly, that is not what governments were aiming for.
But, as my fellow Elders have pointed out, the text gave us some small but important openings through which to pursue the sustainable development agenda further. If Rio+20 did not deliver a robust and binding document, as many of us had hoped, it did deliver principles. Now it is up to us to take ownership of these principles, spread the message to the public and build momentum on them.
I agree with Marvin and Mary that what mattered in Rio was not the work done on the text; it was the strong mobilisation of people that we saw there, who were all determined to put pressure on the process.
This mobilisation will dictate what comes after Rio: what counts is that the interest is at a higher level now. More and more people care, and that increases our ability to apply pressure. Thanks to social media and the internet, young people in particular do not feel the need to wait for anyone to take action and speak out. I really want to encourage this.
Pedro, when we met last month, you asked if the mass of civil society assembled in Rio should speak louder, or if I thought the movement for sustainable development was already ‘speaking loud enough’. I will say again what I said then: No, that kind of clamour is never loud enough. You are young. You have the energy. Make yourselves heard.
We have missed an opportunity, but let me tell you: in my experience, missed opportunities get washed away in the greater tide of change. And every time, this happens thanks to the irrepressible energy of young people like you, who have understood that the final measure of a generation’s courage is the lasting memory of what they were able to achieve. The way you have moved on so quickly from your disappointment in Rio is testament to that.
But you have also understood, I think more clearly than generations before you, the meaning of stewardship – that this world was lent to us by our children’s children, and that we are charged with the responsibility to look after it.
Now, today’s threat seems even more overwhelming than previous ones, and begs a historical change even more sweeping and profound. And you understand that if we don’t solve this one problem, we are all done for; that the outcome of this one challenge will make us all winners, or all losers. If inequalities continue to worsen and temperatures continue to rise, we will not have a world to talk about.
As Rio+20 has shown, a practical way forward never comes easily. It is about unpicking our own mess. It takes time, patience, endeavour and passion. But please do not lose sight of that greater vision – of a world that your great-great grandchildren can inhabit, as you have described it so beautifully throughout this dialogue.
You are right to say, ‘This is our world now. You oldies have made a mess of things and should get out of the way.’
I know that my great-great-grandchildren will be in good hands when all of you are in charge. And I hope this will happen sooner rather than later. Sara, we may not be there with you if there is a Rio+40. But I am not sure that we should want or need one. I know that we can be on track much sooner than this.
I always say that I am not an optimist: I am a prisoner of hope. And it is always thanks to incredibly idealistic young people like you. I know that you will lead your generation to amazing things. And I have no doubt that you will succeed where we have failed. Thank you all, and God bless you.