20 September 2012
The Contested Legacy of Rio+20
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One could read the ambiguous waffling of "The Future We Want" as a meaningless potpourri of issues and actors – or as the license to operate more freely for a number of institutions at multiple levels of governance.

In June 2012, nearly fifty thousand people gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the latest and largest environmental summit, Rio+20.[1] Long before the conference started, however, observers were predicting its failure. “Designed with a wide range of objectives, the conference seems destined to fail,” noted Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France. “Without consensus, no action can be taken, and consensus will be impossible.”[2]

Activists and analysts quickly pronounced the conference a disappointment,[3] a “colossal failure of leadership and vision,”[4] and evidence that “governments have given up on the planet.”[5] Many criticized the 50-page outcome document, entitled The Future We Want, as weak and lacking vision. Greenpeace even dubbed it “the longest suicide note in history.”[6] These grim assessments stem from the unmet expectations for a bold, ambitious collective global vision or treaty to solve increasingly severe contemporary environmental problems.

My assessment of Rio+20 is more nuanced and optimistic than the conclusions of many observers, and is grounded in three observations. First, global problems have increased in number and complexity, their interconnectedness requiring collective action at multiple scales. There is no single, overarching solution to environmental, economic or social problems and much less to all of them collectively. Second, achieving global consensus on global issues is markedly more difficult today, as most traditional and emerging powers are preoccupied with a multitude of domestic or regional problems. Third, this new environment does not encourage big, bold political visionaries but rather requires adaptive leaders attuned to specific details and changing circumstances. Against this backdrop, one could read the ambiguous waffling of “The Future We Want” as a meaningless potpourri of issues and actors – or as the license to operate more freely for a number of institutions at multiple levels of governance.

Despite significant political constraints and predictions of imminent failure, Rio+20 set the agenda for the next two decades for global environmental and sustainability governance through five major developments: a shift in the narrative of sustainable development; reform of international institutions; rethinking of resources; launch of the sustainable development goals process; and integration of participation as principle and practice.


Over four decades, the global narrative has shifted from a focus on protection of the environment as a precondition to development, to a focus on development as a precondition for environmental protection. In 1972, governments agreed that “the protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world; it is the urgent desire of the peoples of the whole world and the duty of all Governments.”[7] At Rio+20, governments saw “eradicating poverty [as] the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.”[8] An important, yet largely unnoticed shift that Rio+20 brought about is the substitution of the three “pillars” with the three “dimensions” of sustainable development. This change recognizes the fluidity and interconnectedness of the environmental, economic, and social aspects of global issues rather than their parallel existence and opens up opportunities for integrative work at multiple levels of governance.


Rio+20’s institutional legacy is threefold. First, it enabled the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to take a leading role in the post-Rio world. Governments committed to “strengthen and upgrade” UNEP by expanding its Governing Council from 58 countries to universal membership; increasing its financial resources; and expanding its role in capacity-building and implementation. UNEP also received authority to formulate UN system-wide strategies on the environment. Second, in a rare institutional reform move, governments decided to abolish the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) – the central institutional outcome of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – and replace it with a High-Level Forum. Finally, Rio+20’s institutional impact on the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) went most unnoticed but might be most significant. By adding “environmental and related fields” to ECOSOC’s functions, governments widely expanded its mandate, de facto re-writing the UN Charter on ECOSOC.[9]


The provision of financial resources to support the implementation of commitments has been a core negotiation issue during all Earth Summits. Rio+20 negotiations were tainted by unmet promises, yet colored by a renewed optimism that a combination of state and non-state contributions would provide the resources necessary to fulfill them. Governments committed to assess financing needs, evaluate the effectiveness of existing financing instruments, and outline a Sustainable Development Financing Strategy by 2014. In addition, non-government sources pledged over US$513 billion to support their commitments. Without a system for tracking pledges, resources, and outcomes, however, the additive effect of these multiple initiatives is likely to be limited.

Sustainable Development Goals

Most observers agree that one of the most important achievements of Rio+20 was the agreement on a process to set global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will focus on priority areas for sustainable development and cover both developed and developing countries.


Rio+20 both called for and evidenced greatly increased global engagement in environmental governance. The outcome document reflected a new global norm for participation – from the “full and effective participation of all countries in decision making processes” to enhancing the participation and “effective engagement” of civil society in multiple governance aspects.[10]

Mega-conferences have been criticized as wasteful talk-shops[11] and lauded as the causal mechanisms behind aggregate shifts in international politics.[12] Rio+20 looks to have proven both right. Under the banner of sustainable development, Rio+20 could not zero in on a handful of issues; it had to tackle all and could not produce the far-reaching reforms many deemed necessary. Significant progress, however, happened on the sidelines of Rio+20 as governments, businesses, civil society groups, and universities registered over 600 voluntary commitments and mobilized over US$513 billion to meet them. Most importantly, however, Rio+20 mobilized the young generation and its lasting legacy might be the training of these adaptive and perceptive new leaders attuned to local realities, globally.

[1] This article is based on a larger piece by the author, which is currently under review at Global Environmental Politics.

[2] Rocard, Michael. “Don’t Blame it on Rio.” February 22 2012.

[3] Halle, Mark. 2012. Perspectives on Rio+20: When the Best Options are Unavailable: What Space do we Really Have.

[4] Center for American Progress. Issues: How the Rio+20 Earth Summit Could Have Been Better. June 26 2012

[5] Monbiot, George. “After Rio, We Know. Governments Have Given up on the Planet.” The Guardian, June 25 2012.

[6] Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, quoted in Time Magazine, June 26, 2012, Time Science.

[7] UN General Assembly. 1972. Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment (A/CONF.48/14). Stockholm. 10 January. para 2.

[8] UN General Assembly. 2012. Resolution A/66/L.56: The Future We Want. 27 July 2012. para 2.

[9] UN General Assembly. 2012. Resolution A/66/L.56: The Future We Want. 27 July 2012., para 83.

[10] UN General Assembly. 2012. Resolution A/66/L.56: The Future We Want. 27 July 2012., para 76(e), 76(h).

[11] Fomerand, Jacques.1996. “UN Conferences: Media Events or Genuine Diplomacy?” Global Governance 2 (3): 361-75.

[12] Haas, Peter. 2002. “UN Conferences and Constructivist Governance of the Environment.” Global Governance 8 (1): p.74.

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