Sustainability gets UN clout

The Rio+20 conference may not have produced an Earth-saving global deal, but it succeeded in keeping sustainable development at the top of the agenda of the world’s leaders, experts said this week.

Chief among its achievements was the plan to develop a set of sustainable development goals that will be blended with the millennium development goals by 2015. A working group of representatives from 30 nations will decide what the goals are by September next year.

The idea for the development goals to be adopted by the United Nations general assembly was a visionary move, said former environment minister Valli Moosa, who was at the helm when South Africa hosted “Rio+10”, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

“Negotiations to get the development goals drawn up and adopted will be difficult, but putting them into the arena of the UN’s general assembly will be a powerful move if done properly,” he said.

The 49-page agreement reached at Rio+20 last Friday has been widely criticised for failing to set definite goals and timelines on pressing global problems such as food security, biodiversity loss, water and energy. It also did not set any rules for a global green economy, but affirmed that each country should set its own path towards achieving it.

Moosa said other disappointments included the United States’ failure to provide leadership – President Barack Obama did not even attend the conference – and the lack of any significant progress on governance of the high seas.

“It’s still a free-for-all Wild West out there and those nations with the most equipment can do as they please.”

One of the main outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development was to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss significantly by 2010, but this was still far from being achieved, he said.

Now the board chairperson of the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa, Moosa said the role of such summits was to keep sustainable development high on the global political agenda.

“Getting heads of state to take time off to think about these issues has spin-offs that are not easy to calculate because they tend to be indirect,” he said.

Environmental affairs spokesperson Albi Modise said Rio+20 had achieved the objective of renewing political commitment to global sustainable development.

Green economy policies
“The department led a South African delegation to the Rio+20 negotiations with a key objective of ensuring that global pronouncements on green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, as well as the institutional framework for sustainable development outcomes, are in line with national developmental interests and that the commitments reached advance the decisions taken at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002,” Modise said.

Key victories for South Africa were that green economy policies were recognised as a viable tool for advancing sustainable development, a process towards developing the  sustainable development goals was announced and the global community agreed to establish a sustainable development council and upgrade the UN Environment Programme.

The programme, long a poor relation of other UN organisations, will be strengthened into an agency with power equal to other UN bodies. It will get a more secure budget, a broader membership and the power to initiate scientific research and co-ordinate global environment strategies.

“We are also enthusiastic about a pronouncement to establish a sustainable development finance mechanism and that a clear process towards such a mechanism has been defined,” said Modise.

“In addition to these issues, a number of thematic areas for sustainable development were considered. Although there are compromises in the text, the South African negotiating team returned from Rio+20 with more wins than losses.”

Some important developments had taken place on the margins of the conference, said Moosa. The private sector, cities, judicial bodies and individual governments made ground-breaking announcements on reducing environmental impacts.

Mozambican President Armando Guebuza launched a road map for a green economy in his country, for instance. “It was a big step for one of the poorest countries in the world and a progressive signal for the rest of the world,” he said.

Rio+20 outcomes
The Rio+20 summit was never expected to generate the sort of landmark accords signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which included a treaty on biodiversity and agreements that led to the creation of the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse emissions.

Some of Rio+20’s main achievements, contained in a 49-page text dubbed “The Future We Want”, included:

  • The integration of sustainable development goals into the United Nations development agenda by 2015. A 30-member working group will decide on a plan and present a proposal for such goals to the UN general assembly in September 2013.
  • Support for previous commitments by countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. There was pressure on Rio+20 to firm up commitment to eliminate subsidies by 2020, but no timelines were set.
  • A commitment to reducing pollution in marine ecosystems and preventing ocean acidification. An eagerly awaited decision on a governance structure for the high seas was put off for a few years.
  • Agreement to evaluate how much money is needed for sustainable development and what new and existing instruments can be used to raise more funds. The process will be led by a group of 30 experts, which will conclude its work by 2014.
  • Calls by some developing countries for the creation of a $30-billion sustainable development fund did not make it into the text, which urged rich countries to make “concrete efforts” towards delivering a previously agreed target of 0.7% of gross domestic product in aid to developing countries by 2015.
  • Support for the green economy as a common road map for sustainable development.
  • Strengthening of the United Nations Environment Programme into an agency with similar powers to other UN ­bodies such as the World Health Organisation.
  • Recognition that corporate and government accounting should reflect environmental profit and loss.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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