Rio + 20 – governments fail to lead on sustainable development

Sustainable development? East Port of Spain, Trinidad.

The Rio +20 summit was widely ignored by the world’s political leaders – the clearest possible statement that they have no intention of providing leadership on sustainable development. Similarly, the media devoted scant attention to the event – in marked contrast to the coverage given to the landmark 1992 gathering, or the 1972 summit in Stockholm. So what actually happened at Rio and where does it leave planners and others whose work it is to deliver more sustainable forms of development?

The figures

It is worth pausing a moment to reflect on a few basic figures. The world population at the time of the 1992 Rio conference was about 5.5 billion. Now it is 7 billion, and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. For all the talk about progress on Millennium Development Goals, one in five people have to live on $1.25 a day or less (for UK readers that is 80 pence or one Euro in the Eurozone). A billion and a half people have no electricity; 2.5 billion no toilet. Nobody should be surprised that the Global South has little time for voices from the Global North preaching the need to put the environment first, and certainly not while the North is not prepared to put its own environmental house in order.

The long economic crisis has sapped what little political enthusiasm there was in the North for taking the environmental crises seriously. Recession cuts the carbon, but hearts and minds are wishing for a return to the “normality” that was 2007. Meanwhile, as Dambisa Moyo recently pointed out, we are also witnessing the rapid growth of a middle class across Asia, Africa and Latin America that aspires to the same consumption standards as its Western counterparts. She puts its growth at 2 billion by 2030.

What did the summit have to say?

Faced with this escalation of demands on the planet’s natural resources, what did the summit have to say? Pledges were made that if followed will result in planting 100 million trees, empowering 5,000 women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa, and recycling 800,000 tons of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) per year. The headline figure is the commitment of $513 billion (£330 billion) by governments, the private sector, civil society and other groups “to achieve a sustainable future”. It sounds impressive until you think of what the banks have cost us, and that this is a global fund.

The Outcomes Document, entitled “The Future We Want” (not “The Future we are working together to achieve”) is aspirational and lacks specific commitments. It reaffirms support for the principles from the 1992 conference, including the Agenda 21 which so boosted local action in the years that followed.
No reasonable person could disagree with it. This is no surprise since the UN has to work by consensus and that tends to lead to a lowest common denominator, stripping out anything that would cause offence or embarrassment to any government. Even this anaemic text is something that Finance ministries and global corporations will casually ignore.

Planning and Sustainable Cities

Four of the 283 paragraphs are devoted to “Sustainable Cities and Settlements” and there are another couple on “Sustainable Transport”.

The document calls for a “holistic approach to urban development and human settlements that provides for affordable housing and infrastructure and prioritizes slum upgrading and urban regeneration.” However, given the scale of population increase and rural to urban migration in rapidly urbanising societies, the real challenge is how to address new slum formation. This is not addressed.

Conservation “as appropriate”

Conservation of the natural and cultural heritage, revitalization of historic districts and rehabilitation of city centres are upheld as good things, but only with the get-out phrase “as appropriate”. Remember we are talking sustainable development here: are there really conditionalities attached to natural and cultural heritage. Does not their destruction now, by definition, deprive future generations of them? In this kind of aspirational document could the nations not agree on any stronger endorsement of the connection between conservation and sustainable development?

There is a commitment to “promote” sustainable development and “a safe and healthy living environment for all” along with “improved urban planning and slum upgrading”. Well we want improved urban planning, but what improvements are needed?

More positively the connection of urban planning to disaster risk reduction, resilience and climate risks is stated. However, these are only matters to be “considered”. In many countries the message still needs to be sent that these are not optional extras, but the very essentials of what urban planning should be about. This was an opportunity to send such a message and it was missed.

There is endorsement of the role of local governments in leading the process of sustainable urban planning and design, along with stakeholder involvement. Also the importance of the gender dimension in planning is recognised. The plight of small island developing states is also trailed (c.f. my blog on the Maldives).

So where does this leave us?

My reading of what happened at Rio is that it is a set back, not a leap forward in the way that the 1972 and 1992 conferences were. It amounts to a significant turning point. It is really difficult to see where the international political will to take sustainable development seriously is going to come from for the foreseeable future. The phrase has now become devoid of meaning, a patina to give a surface gloss to any action.

It will be up to local governments, professionals, academics and civil society to carry forward the vision, the thinking, the practices that can make a difference. However, instead of having a sense that we were moving with the tide, as was the case 20 years ago, we now need the mentality and skills of dissidents. What do you think?