Rio+20 has not quite concluded, but we’re rapidly approaching the end line. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Rio+20 outcome document was largely finalized  yesterday afternoon. NGOs have weighed in on what this means, and most are rightfully frustrated . Almost across the board, the document is much too soft and vague to solve today’s sustainability challenges. Much of the text is merely a reaffirmation of previous agreements or worse, a regression from those agreements.
That said, we’ve believed all along that the more groundbreaking action at Rio+20 would be outside of the formal process. Certainly, after attending many side events and informal meetings this week, I’ve come across numerous examples of civil society organizations, entrepreneurs, companies, and others who are moving forward with innovative approaches to address sustainability. Perhaps more importantly, outside of Rio, many national and local governments are genuinely pushing ahead on sustainability in exciting ways.
The picture at Rio is much like the world today: complex, incremental and not rising to the challenges in front of us.
This raises at least two important questions: Why isn’t the outcome text stronger? And where are the signs of hope?
On the text, there are core challenges that are standing in the way of more progress in Rio:
First off, the world is facing financial, economic and political crises on several levels. This shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction, but it is a reality right now.
Second, these global issues are highly complex and resist easy answers– especially when considering that the old construct of developed-versus-developing countries is a gross oversimplification of a more fluid reality today.
Third, strong interests are holding back progress on many key issues. These include some governments, businesses, and others with vested interests that prefer to hang on to the status quo rather than advance change in the world. This was most clear earlier this week when world leaders failed to respond to the groundswell of voices that pushed to cut global fossil fuel subsidies.
If you combine complexity with vested interests and add unanimity in decision-making, it’s a recipe for the lowest common denominator. Given these conditions, it’s far easier to block action than to make progress.
On the global level, this points to the need to be sharper about what we want to achieve at international gatherings and the process to get there. While some of the UN Conventions have a greater sense of purpose due to the more limited nature of the issues they are dealing with (e.g. UNFCCC), the challenges at Rio loom large.
So, while the text is far from ideal and has been watered down in many ways, where are the signs of hope?
Here are three places in the text to find progress:
Sustainable Development Goals: The inclusion of Sustainable Development Goals in the final text represents an important outcome from Rio+20 that potentially will help shape the global development agenda of the future. Many questions remain. As we’ve argued before—and now identified in the text— a key question to be settled post-Rio is how the SDGs will move toward a one-track process in line with the emerging global dialogue on defining the post-2015 development agenda. This work will start with the UN Secretary General's high-level panel  on post-2015.
Governance and Principle 10: The role of governance, which is sometimes overlooked, is a key area to ensure that people have rights and governments are held accountable for their words. The text provides support for Principle 10, which was enshrined at the original Rio+20 Summit, giving hope for advancement. This is a positive sign that will help bring increased transparency and accountability to environmental issues. We are also pleased that countries have made commitments  to improve the consultative role of civil society in intergovernmental processes, mandated UNEP to explore new mechanisms to ensure citizen participation and transparency, and encouraged action at the regional and national level. Chile also announced that several Latin American countries are committing to explore a regional convention on Principle 10.
Transportation: In the past, transport has not been considered in sustainability discussions, but now we’re seeing transport rising up on the agenda. As the global middle class expands and becomes more urban, we’re currently heading toward a world with more cars, more congestion, more pollution, and related challenges. It’s vital that we respond to these transport and urbanization challenges, and the inclusion of strong, mass public transit language in the Rio+20 outcome is a step forward.
Other Meaningful Commitments
Outside of the formal process, we’ve seen a few other meaningful commitments coming out of Rio+20. These include efforts by officials and ordinary people who are pushing to advance key values: increased transparency, improved governance, more innovation, better measurement, and more.
Here are a just couple of important announcements from this week:
Mayor Bloomberg, President Clinton, and C40 announced important progress for cities to address sustainable urbanization. As Mayor Bloomberg said, “cities are on the front line of climate change,” along with other environmental issues. C40 cities are on track to cut emissions by 248 million tons by 2020 and could reach one billion tons by 2030. WRI is working to create healthier and more livable cities on many levels, including improving design, expanding bus-rapid-transit, and helping cities to measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Another significant outcome was today’s announcement by eight multilateral development banks to provide $175 billion over 10 years in support of sustainable transport worldwide. As my colleague Holger Dalkmann said, this is a potential “game changer”  for sustainable transportation worldwide, moving it squarely into the core of the sustainability agenda.
More Progress Needed
One area where we would like to see more progress is around sustainable business. At several events this week, businesses at Rio were unable to grasp the fundamental recognition that the planet is on an unsustainable course and the window for action is closing. We were disappointed to find that most of the talk seemed to restate the basics, but failed to produce transformational ideas about how we can shift course in time. One notable exception was the Natural Capital Leadership Compact  signed by 15 global companies, which urged action to properly value and maintain the Earth’s natural capital.
Of course, as we’ve argued before, business will only go so far on its own. Governments have an important role to play. They need to set the right policies and incentives, including putting a price on what we as society value. With such policies in place, business can embrace bolder action to innovate and scale up solutions.
So, as world leaders continue to arrive at Rio+20, it’s time for them to step up, raise their level of ambition, and follow-through on their words with concrete steps and actions that will truly move the world forward on sustainability.