Rio+20: Outcome and Follow-up

Janez Potocnik
Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)

By Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 11, 2012 (ENS) – Much has been said in the press and elsewhere about the disappointment many have felt about the Rio+20 outcome. Together with my colleagues in the Commission, I have been clear that we would have wanted more. For example, setting concrete timelines in order to underline the urgent need for action, and upgrading the institutions dealing with international environment issues.

But the time for wish-lists is over. It is now time for action.

After long negotiations, the EU and its Member States decided it is better to have this agreement, than no agreement at all.

Janez Potocnik
Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)


Why? Because the final outcome provides a set of priorities and a pathway for further work. And because – as I already said in the European Parliament last week – we need to act urgently, the poorest in the world and the planet, cannot afford delays.

Of course, we need to recognise that Rio is only the beginning, but it is a beginning we can build on. It is now up to us to make the best of the results obtained.

One of the main outcomes of Rio is that the world has finally recognised the need to move towards a green economy, towards a sustainable growth model. This in itself is already a very important achievement. One that opens a clear path in the direction the EU has been pushing for.

The Rio outcome document acknowledges the important role of an inclusive green economy in achieving sustainable development and poverty eradication. This will enhance our ability to manage natural resources sustainably, increase resource efficiency and reduce waste.

The outcome document also recognises the need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP [Gross Domestic Product] in order to have more solid policy decisions, as well as the importance of corporate sustainability reporting. And it provides the necessary basis to turn these words into action.

Rio+20, in addition, has given a stronger social angle to sustainable development, on matters such as decent work, green jobs, and social protection – and at a time when our societies suffer widespread unemployment, this is particularly important.

But it is also very important because it has helped to link up all three dimensions of sustainable development, and strengthen the message that growth should be not only economically and ecologically sustainable, but also fair, just and equitable.

During the negotiations the EU contributed actively to highlighting a range of fundamental, cross-cutting issues. Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, good governance, gender equality and empowerment of women, the role of youth and education, civil society and public participation, are indispensable in achieving sustainable development.

Another very important outcome concerns the fundamental role of civil society and stakeholders in achieving sustainable development. We can build on this further in our work to help strengthen UNEP.

A long-lasting success of our commitments taken at Rio will be impossible without the whole-scale, constructive mobilisation of civil society. A fundamental prerequisite is public participation in decision-making. This is essential to ensuring the transition to an inclusive green economy and the achievement of sustainable development.

However, without a strong sense of direction which is shared internationally, civil society action will not achieve its full impact. That is why the EU pushed for goals and targets at global level.

I was encouraged to see the very significant engagement of civil society in Rio. This gives me hope that the global goals, even if less strong than we had hoped for, combined with a strong bottom-up movement will actually bring about change faster than we could have hoped for.

The private sector was also present in significant numbers in Rio. This is very encouraging. The clear message, on goals, implementation and regulation as a spur to innovation, sent by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, was very helpful.

In addition, we have a number of other instruments to support the private sector in its pursuit of sustainable development. These include the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises; the global framework for social responsibility; the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; the 10 Principles of the UN Global Compact; the ISO 26000 standard on social responsibility; and the Global Reporting Initiative.

I am convinced that if given the direction and the necessary enabling framework, the private sector, can create investments, prosperity and well-being, decent employment and green jobs, and help to promote sharing of know-how and development and diffusion of innovation and technology.

This will be fundamental for the necessary mobilisation of financial resources in much greater volumes than official development assistance.

In relation to means of implementation, the EU has taken the position that, first and foremost, each country must take the necessary measures to put in place an enabling environment of domestic policies that is designed to be self-sustaining.

Secondly, progress towards sustainable development entails providing the right financing instruments. We repeated our commitments to the Official Development Assistance, but ODA alone is not the answer. Public and private funding and business expertise should go hand-in-hand to work with innovative methods of financing. And emerging economies should take a stronger role, proportionate to their evolving international status.

Thirdly, moving towards more sustainable development also depends on skills, know-how and technology diffusion. In this regard, the European Union research framework programmes are open to all countries, including support to researchers in developing countries.

The EU made clear over the course of the Rio negotiations that we all needed to agree on concrete actions and specific commitments to translate sustainable development thinking into sustainable development action. That is why the EU developed and continuously advocated proposals for clear, operational goals and targets in selected key areas.

Our approach aims to address environmental objectives and poverty eradication at the same time.

We did not obtain the timelines we sought, with some exceptions such as the commitment to achieve substantial reductions of marine litter by 2025.

But the EU did achieve the integration of most of its proposed targets into the main text in the form of express commitments, for example on future action concerning extending the protection of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. This has reinforced the text to make it more action oriented.

The efforts of the EU to focus attention on key issues such as sustainable energy, water, oceans, land and biodiversity, food security or resource efficiency, should also bear fruit in the coming months, in the process to develop Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

For the EU, the work on SDGs should be coordinated and coherent with the review process of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, without deviating efforts from their achievement by 2015.

It is important to have an overarching framework for post-2015 that encompasses the three dimensions of sustainable development with goals that address key challenges in a holistic and coherent way.

The agreement to launch the SDG process means bringing a fresh impetus to all aspects of sustainable development, and to consolidate our efforts to eradicate poverty and to secure sustainability within our planetary limits.

Overall, we also welcome the agreement to reinforce the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development.

Rio has reinforced the international environmental governance by strengthening and upgrading UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme]. It will now have universal membership and must become our common home to set the global environmental agenda. In this new set-up, a truly global UNEP will have a new authority that will allow it to take actions that were until now beyond its reach.

We will however continue to work, together with our partners, towards the creation of a fully-fledged United Nations Environment Organization, to allow it to function on an equal footing with other UN organizations.

The other institutional reform is the decision to establish a new High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which will replace the Commission on Sustainable Development. It should allow the regular participation of Heads of State in reviewing progress on all our commitments.

At Rio, we reaffirmed that we share a common responsibility towards future generations. None of the countries and regions present at Rio achieved in full what was wanted initially. This also applies to the EU. But we have worked together to develop common ground.

Rio+20 has not gone as far as most of Europeans would have wanted, but the key message today is that the power to turn Rio+20 into a success lies in our hands. It will depend on how strongly we take forward what is in the text.

The European Commission intends to do what is necessary to build on what has been agreed. We are looking forward to the EESC [European Economic and Social Committee] views on how this can be done best and count on you to keep the positive energy generated in the run up to Rio alive in the years to come at international, national and local levels.

We welcome in particular the useful initiatives taken by the EESC to create common ground with comparable organisations in other countries, including our major trading partners, and encourage it to continue this dialogue in the follow-up to Rio.

I also very much welcome the idea of [EESC] President [Staffan] Nilsson to organise this autumn an inter-institutional workshop on the follow-up to Rio.

We will not achieve success from Rio+20 with governments alone. The challenge will be to achieve a real commitment on action from non-state actors at international, at national and at sub-national level.

Civil society and the private sector will play a fundamental role in delivering green growth and promoting sustainable consumption and production. Indeed, the transition to an inclusive green economy will not happen without this effort.

The Rio outcome has many elements required for bringing about change if we really want to build on its strengths, mobilising national and international efforts, including civil society and stakeholders at large. The shared challenge for us all now is to implement in full the potential of the outcome document, and ensure that Rio+20 leads to real action towards sustainable development, an inclusive green economy and poverty eradication.

The destiny of making Rio+20 Summit a failure or a success is still in our hands. And we should not fail in making it a success.

{Since May 2004 Dr. Janez Potočnik of Slovenia has served as Commissioner for Environment on the European Commission, the EU government’s executive branch. He delivered this speech on July 11, 2012 at a plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee, a consultative body that gives Europe’s social and occupational interest groups a formal platform to express their views. EESC opinions are forwarded to the larger institutions – the EU Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

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