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Rio+20 in the Rear View: Countries Commit to Improve Environmental Governance

More than a year ago, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon likened Rio+20 to a “free-market revolution for global sustainability,” calling for the event to inspire innovations that move the world toward more sustainable pathways to economic growth and development. Later in the year, U.N. Commission for Sustainable Development Chair, Sha Zukang, explained that the main difference of Rio+20 from earlier conferences “will be the sharp focus on renewing political commitments and on implementation…” Said Sha, “My message is: come to Rio ready to commit.”

The Rio+20 conference wrapped up on June 22nd, so the big question is: Did governments come through with these serious commitments? Overall, the conference has been criticized for falling short of its goals, but one particular high point is countries’ actions to improve governance, especially regarding Principle 10. This “environmental democracy principle,” established at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, states that environmental issues are best solved with participation from all interested citizens. Several countries moved forward in embracing this important sustainable development principle during Rio+20. However, understanding how nations got to this place—and what the commitments mean—requires some backstory.

The Three Demands Campaign

The Access Initiative (TAI), a global network facilitated by WRI that promotes access to information, public participation, and justice in matters impacting the environment and development, launched the Three Demands (3Ds) Campaign in July of 2011. TAI saw Rio+20 as a chance for individual countries to re-affirm their commitment to Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration and take new, innovative steps to implement this cornerstone of environmental governance. Through the 3Ds campaign, TAI partners and their networks identified the most important steps needed in each country to improve public involvement in environmental decision-making—from forest management to pollution control, from project-level decisions to formation of law and regulation.

As the formal process continued throughout the next year, U.N. member states signaled their commitment to open and participatory governance in multiple versions of “The Future We Want,” Rio+20’s formal outcome document. Further, in one of the more interesting developments to emerge from the process, more than one “Compendium of Commitments” has been developed to make note of governments’ and institutions’ pledges, including an official process led by UNDESA as well as a “Cloud of Commitments,” launched by NRDC. (See the earlier blog post I wrote for more information on these initiatives.) These interfaces might help to energize implementation and accountability.

The Results

In total, more than a dozen countries where TAI is engaged signaled their intent to improve implementation of Principle 10. On June 19th, 2012, TAI, the network’s Brazil partners, Fundação Getulio Vargas-Rio Program on Law and Environment, and the United Nations Economic Programme hosted “Choosing Our Future: Open and Participatory Sustainable Development Governance,” an event which showcased governments’ commitments to improve governance. Highlights include:

  • Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Convention on Principle 10: Led by Chile and the Economic Commission for Latin America (UNECLAC), so far 10 countries have signed onto a declaration to launch a process negotiating a regional convention on access to information, public participation, and access to justice. Countries publicly supporting this declaration include Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. In an era where multilateralism in the environmental arena is seen as increasingly rare, this declaration is a notable exception.

  • Ireland: As a result of pressure from Irish NGOs, many of which are led by members of the TAI coalition, the Irish Government expressed its intent to ratify the Aarhus Convention (formally the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters). On June 21st, it became the final European Union member state to ratify the convention.

  • Indonesia: TAI partners made a number of recommendations to their government as a part of the 3 demands campaign. While the commitment was formally registered into the process for the Open Government Partnership, one of Indonesia’s commitments around access to information was articulated in the 3Ds campaign. Additionally, in the weeks preceding Rio+20, the Chief Justice of the Indonesian Supreme Court, following the release of the 3Ds by TAI partners led by ICEL, the Chief Justice has issued several measures to improve access to justice, including decrees establishing and implementing environmental judges certification.

  • South Africa: Similar to Indonesia, South African TAI partners issued a number of demands and had one of them integrated into the Open Government Partnership—specifically, the launch of a feasibility study for an Open Environmental Data plan.

  • UNEP: In a presentation to the “Choosing Our Future” audience, UNEP’s Achim Steiner, represented by staff, committed to advance Principle 10 through: creating programs to implement the 2010 Bali Guidelines on Principle 10; improving Principle 10 implementation within UNEP’s internal processes; and providing continuous support to the application of Principle 10 internationally, including through international and/or regional treaties and within the Eye on Earth Community.

Looking to the Future

Moving forward, it is hoped that the commitments process will continue as a rolling process— perhaps in the high-level forum currently being established. Continuing this process is an opportunity to make Rio+20 and the institutions it established more than just a simple talk shop and actually create real change.

We know that in the coming months, TAI partners will work to ensure that further commitments are submitted by governments, whether through the formal Rio+20 commitment process (open for the entirety of 2012) or through other arrangements, such as the Open Government Partnership. Just as importantly, we will be there to continue to track implementation and execution, whether or not commitments are formally entered into any official registry.

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