Rio+20 didn’t go far enough - what now?

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Friday, 20 July, 2012

“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?

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