Reflecting on Rio+20

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Adriane Macdonald offers a frontline opinion from the historic conference

Adriane MacDonald in an office

Despite the media's reporting MacDonald believes there were some positives from the conference.

As a PhD student in the University of Waterloo’s Environment and Resource Studies program, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Over the past 30 years there have been three UN conferences on the topic of sustainable development. Every 10 years leaders from around the world are brought together by the UN in order to negotiate the global sustainable development path. My advisor, Dr. Amelia Clarke, and I attended this conference in order to launch our research project, which is detailed  on the CIGI website.

Preceding Rio+20 there was excitement for the prospect of a global sustainable future, but in the end our leaders did very little in the way of committing to the ambitious goals that we had hoped they would. Sadly the negotiations were not based on content; rather they were based on interests. One conspicuous outcome of Rio+20 --  The Future We Want document -- was only partially successful. While the document perhaps fell short as the forceful primary outcome document of the entire conference, some sections were quite well done. The silent stories of small scale success offered inspiration and hope to conference participants. It is unfortunate that our media prefers to report a narrative of failure because what people need to feel empowered is hope.

Many conference attendees critiqued the drafting of the Future We Want document. They reflected that it would have been more useful to have the experts develop the first draft based on rich content, which would have allowed for more informed negotiations among decision makers. For example, the document’s section on the Green Economy is particularly weak. This section provides little clarity about what the green economy is and essentially reads as a political interest piece. That being said other sections, such as the Institutional Framework on Sustainable Development, are much better. This section includes tangible, coherent content, and some action planning.

In the end was it enough? Many say that a rehashing of what is, and very little in the way of novel commitments is not what we need. The people want action and additional commitments from governments that go beyond Agenda 21, a document written at the first Earth Summit 20 years ago. The challenges humanity faces have gotten much worse in the last 20 years, and the people loudly voiced their concerns at the People’s Summit, which ran parallel to the UNCSD.

Further highlighting our state leaders` inability to listen to the people was the refusal to end oil subsidies. A massive campaign on Twitter that urged leaders to end oil subsidies created a lot of discussion and awareness, but did not result in any commitments. Canada in particular pushed back on the notion of ending oil subsidies. Ambitious goals such as this were the types of commitments that we were hoping to see from our governments, but did not.

The other side of the story, which is seldom captured by the media, are the positive outcomes. Here I am talking about the international connections and networks formed that potentially result in collaborations for sustainable development activities, the inspired participants who go home and take action and, the creation of awareness around sustainable development issues. These outcomes have a deep impact, but are not discussed because the media chooses to focus on the sensational story of failure, and  these outcomes are near impossible to measure.

In this space I was asked to comment on what was not discussed at Rio+20. To address this question, I conclude with hope because when given the opportunity to discuss what really happened, it is my responsibility to give the full story. The negativity which is the focus of stories in the media only contributes to the problem by leaving people feeling un-empowered and hopeless. The truth is that we all have the power to make the future we want by choosing responsibly in our everyday actions and by getting involved in local sustainability initiatives being taken on by our local governments, NGOs, and places of work.

Adriane MacDonald is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo studying municipal sustainable development. She is passionate about making communities places that people love to live. She is a believer is local action, community collaboration and sustainable development.

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