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Fletcher Features

Reflecting on Rio+20

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (known as Rio+20), world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, came together to discuss how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want. The goal of Rio+20 was to provide an opportunity for the world to reflect on the commitments made at the 1st Earth Summit 20 years ago (also held in Rio) and develop a global vision for sustainable development for the next 20 years. As scholars working at the nexus of the environment and international development, attending Rio+20 was a chance for us to see up close, and better understand, these efforts to change our current course of unsustainable development at a crucial moment in the world's history.

However, one might have easily left the Rio+20 conference feeling somewhat pessimistic. After all, the final text that was agreed upon by the national delegations was at best a small step forward, and at worst a reaffirmation of language from past agreements. Yet, despite the meager outcome of the “official” negotiations, optimists could look to the side events for inspiration.

Two such events that we attended promised more short-term progress than the diplomatic process has delivered. The first, a side event jointly hosted by the World Bank and the UK, announced a new initiative they have called the 50/50 program. The program aims to unite at least 50 countries and 50 private sector entities into a partnership to promote and develop a sophisticated system of natural capital accounting (NCA). The event was extremely well-attended, packing the room well beyond intended seating capacity. Rachel Kyte, a 2002 graduate of the Fletcher School, and current Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank, presided over the event, which included heads of state from Costa Rica, Norway, and Gabon, as well as representatives from private sector firms such as Unilever, Dow, and Puma. Prime Minister Stoltenberg of Norway and other speakers argued that NCA is the only way to truly hold private sector firms accountable for the natural resources they consume. Further, it aims to better measure the wealth held by resource-rich countries, which have been undervalued by traditional metrics such as GDP. So far, the 50/50 partnership is off to a great start, as it has already exceeded its initial goal, having enlisted 57 countries and 86 private companies. 

The second notable side event was the launch of the U.S. Water Partnership, a consortium of government, private sector, academic, and NGO partners committed to mobilizing expertise, resources, and ingenuity to address global water challenges. TIE is a founding member of the partnership, and only one of a few academic partners. The launch brought together expert speakers to discuss the urgent issues that the partnership was created to overcome. Also at the event, founding partners Coca Cola and World Vision announced formal financial commitments toward the partnership’s goals.

These two side events displayed the power behind multi-sector partnerships—a power that we feel traditional diplomacy generally struggles to harness. The stark contrast between the enthusiasm and productivity on the sidelines of Rio+20 and the lack of momentum in the formal negotiations suggests that perhaps we should begin questioning traditional approaches to negotiations. While private sector actors and NGOs can be a powerful force for sustainable development, government participation is still critically important. 

In order to advance the dialogue on this topic, CIERP and Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) hosted a panel discussion about reframing environmental negotiations entitled, “From Burden Bearing to Opportunity Sharing: Reframing Environmental Negotiations.” The concept for the panel emerged from a paper on reframing the climate negotiations in terms of energy access, written by CIERP Director William Moomaw and Mihaela Papa (formerly of The Fletcher School, now a research fellow at Harvard Law). Their main argument is that the current negotiations’ focus on burden-sharing is unlikely to be successful. Thus, the panel proposed that by focusing on sustainable development, negotiations could be reframed around positives rather than negatives. At the event, we explored three examples of issues that are currently framed in terms of burdens, but could instead be framed in terms of opportunities: energy use, climate change adaptation, and health.

Although the outcome document of the formal negotiations is now complete, much work still remains to implement the agreement, leaving room for modifications. Perhaps reframing the issues involved will engage more actors in sustainable development and bring some of the enthusiasm we witnessed in the side events to the formal proceedings.

--Laura Kuhl and Andrew Tirrell, Ph.D. Candidates

Check out additional coverage of Tufts' participation in Rio+20: