Center for American Progress

How the Rio+20 Earth Summit Could Have Been Better

How the Rio+20 Earth Summit Could Have Been Better

Final Outcome Text Lacks Specific Details and Goals

Adam James, Andrew Light, and Gwynne Taraska explain how the final draft of the summit’s outcome text could have been stronger.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the closing ceremony of the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP/Andre Penner)
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the closing ceremony of the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP/Andre Penner)

The final draft of the outcome text of the Rio+20 Earth Summit—officially called the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last week—disappointed activists and many delegates around the world. The document has few defenders, other than the meeting’s Brazilian chairman, who took control of the negotiating process at the beginning of last week and produced the final outcome text

The World Wildlife Fund declared the text “a colossal failure of leadership and vision.” Ida Auken, the Danish environment minister and chair of the European Environment Council, remarked that “the EU would have liked to see a much more concrete and ambitious outcome, so in that respect I’m not happy with it.” Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had hoped for a more “ambitious” outcome, though he quickly added that we should understand the difficulty of resolving “conflicting interests” among the parties over how to divide global responsibility for creating a more sustainable society with a less destructive impact on the planet.

Some of this criticism, however, could be overwrought. Unlike the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, this meeting never aimed to produce a new international treaty. From the start, its most ambitious aim was to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals that would replace the U.N. Millennium Development Goals—which were agreed to in New York in 2000 and are set to expire in 2015—to address global poverty.

Given the conflicting interests identified by Secretary-General Moon, it is impressive that the parties went on the record to support the need for many progressive changes in the development and environment agenda, such as broad approval for addressing an array of ocean sustainability and agricultural issues and the creation of a new high-level forum that will draft new Sustainable Development Goals by 2014.

But while the latest Rio text acknowledges—and occasionally even “underlines,” “underscores,” and “stresses”—that action on sustainable development and climate change is urgently needed, it lacks specific goals, details on how to achieve them, and target dates. While the text initiates yet another round of talks, the absence of such specific goals and roadmaps to achieving its aspirations hinders the document’s reach and impact. If this is the best the U.N. process can do, it calls into doubt the utility of these grand multilateral meetings.

Some, such as former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-CO), president of the U.N. Foundation, reply that we should not focus on the text as much as the public-private partnerships announced at the meeting around initiatives such as Secretary-General Moon’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative (described in more detail below), which has drawn $2 billion in support from the United States.

Wirth has a good point: At this moment, there may be no need to wrangle further over why the Rio text is so weak. In the end, the Rio text looks much more like a G-20 text, simply articulating the lowest common denominator among the parties. While activists may have hoped for more, this could be the most we could ask for in a process when an actual treaty is not on the table.

Still, how this text went wrong offers some interesting lessons. If we examine the development of the Rio text, we see that it could have been bolder if some parties had been allowed to strengthen it.

Evolution of the text

We compared the final Rio text with the June 2 version, which we chose because it still identified requests by parties to add or remove language from the document. Negotiators at the time were halfway through a two-week meeting at the United Nations in New York, during the third round of informal negotiations to draft a text. In contrast, the meeting’s chairman determined last week’s text to be the best compromise between the competing interests of the parties. 

We conclude that while responsibility for this final text now rests with all Rio’s assembled parties, the chairman could have pushed the parties harder to produce a more ambitious text by negotiating throughout the week. Instead, the pattern seems to be one of eliminating any disagreement on any item, which resulted in a joint declaration now charged with failing to provide adequate targets, timelines, or guidelines.

Our comparison reveals a second conclusion: Had some of the United States’ positions prevailed in the negotiations, the final text would have included stronger specific goals and roadmaps for success, resolving two of the text’s chief weaknesses. Comparing the final outcome text with the United States’ position is particularly instructive because the United States is often criticized for being one of the most conservative parties in international climate negotiations.

In the part of the Rio text devoted to supporting the Millennium Development Goals, for example, the United States wanted to eliminate language calling for increased contributions to achieve those goals presumably because of the difficulty the administration would face trying to increase international development assistance. But if a party perceived as one of the more conservative was in favor of a stronger agreement, then we can only imagine what would have happened if the negotiations were pushed harder.

Take, for example, the paragraph on the Sustainable Energy for All initiative. The initiative has three goals:

  • To eliminate global energy poverty by 2030
  • To double the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030
  • To double the share of renewable energy in the global mix by 2030

Prior to the Rio meeting, Secretary-General Moon promoted it as a potential centerpiece of a Rio agreement. Although the United States sought to curtail language in the earlier text that implied financial assistance from U.N. member countries to achieve these ends, it strongly advocated including language private-sector engagement in the text. The final text, interestingly enough, scrapped both avenues for funding these initiatives and made no mention of funding whatsoever.   

As far as we can tell, the Sustainable Energy for All provision in the June 2 document, as the United States would have had it, is this:

We note the Secretary General’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative and its aspirational goals of ensuring universal access to modern energy services by 2030; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030. We recognize that resources will be necessary to achieve these results particularly through enabling environments that unlock private sector investments. We encourage voluntary follow-up efforts to coordinate and to catalyse public-private partnerships and to track progress towards its three goals and, in this regard, we encourage States and relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, to conduct, as appropriate, collaborative international research and capacity development based on a roadmap to be developed through a multilateral process, involving all stakeholders. [emphasis added]

The final text, dramatically shorter, cut out several important clarifications, including the U.S. comment on enabling private-sector investments.

Equally important—if not more so, especially given the criticisms of the text circulating since last week in the media—is the fact that the final version cuts out any mention of the need to develop a roadmap to achieve these goals inserted by Kazakhstan, apparently due to objections by China and the “Group of 77” developing countries. To add insult to injury, an escape clause is added at the end of the statement, essentially letting off the hook any party that does not want to pursue these goals:

We note the launching of the initiative by the Secretary General on “Sustainable Energy for All,” which focus on access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energies. We are all determined to act to make sustainable energy for all a reality, and through this, help eradicate poverty and lead to sustainable development and global prosperity. We recognize that countries’ activities in broader energy-related issues are of great importance and are prioritized according to their specific challenges, capacities and circumstances, including energy mix.

An important caveat to attributing responsibility for the watering down of the final text is that while the earlier text reveals what parties wanted inserted or taken out, it does not show what each party thought about every provision. A country would not have been able to articulate an objection if another country already registered a reservation. Still, absent additional evidence, a push for stronger support for the Sustainable Energy for All initiative would have delivered a better conclusion to the meeting.

At some point during the negotiation process, however, an attempt to use Rio to create new Sustainable Development Goals eclipsed this initiative. Here, too, we see a pattern of rejecting even cautious improvements in the text.

The final text does not articulate actual goals for sustainable development. The attempt to express these goals explicitly resulted in a burgeoning list of goals in the drafts preceding the final text, as parties pitched in their favorite priorities. Instead, the final document establishes a new “high level political forum” charged with starting a process this fall at the opening of the U.N. general assembly in New York to come up with a set of new sustainability goals.

The forum is entrusted with a range of responsibilities, including encouraging systemwide participation by all U.N. agencies; enhancing the consultative role of relevant stakeholders in the process; strengthening the science-policy interface for setting goals; and making decision-making more evidence-based. The forum will comprise 30 members, nominated by the member states and representing all regions of the world, and with deliver a final set of recommendations by 2014. It also will have a specific institutional place in the U.N. system and will eventually replace the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, which convened the Rio summit.

Still, some of the more interesting additions to the text, which could have improved this process and staved off some criticism, were jettisoned last week in the push to find consensus early in the meeting. In the section on financing these new goals, for example, the United States moved in several places to modify the overwhelming reliance on public assistance common in the U.N. system. But the United States did offer an alternative in a proposed section on tax reform to help the poor:

We reaffirm that national ownership and leadership of development strategies and good governance are important for effective mobilization of domestic financial resources and fostering sustained fiscal reform, including tax reform, which is key to enhancing macroeconomic policies and mobilizing domestic public resources. Countries should also continue to improve budgetary processes and to enhance the transparency of public financial management and the quality of expenditures. We emphasize the need to enhance tax revenues through modernized tax systems, more efficient tax collection, broadening the tax base and effectively combating tax evasion. We stress that these efforts should be undertaken with an overarching view to make tax systems more pro-poor. – US (adapted from Monterrey 16)

This entire section was struck, however, in the final version of the text, which merely states that member nations recognize “the crucial importance of enhancing financial support from all sources for sustainable development.” Additional attempts to give the financial portions of the Sustainable Development Goals a needed boost were also dropped from the text.


In responding to criticisms of the final text, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that if 193 of the protesters in Rio convened, “they would have difficulty finding a common denominator, too.” He’s likely correct. But given the legacy issues at stake—and the possibility that the summit will come to be seen as a reason to abandon meetings of this scale—a harder push on the assembled parties to strengthen their commitments would have been worth it.

The opportunity to do that, of course, is now over. The new high-level forum to create Sustainable Development Goals should begin its work by mining earlier drafts of the Rio document for actionable ideas.

Adam James is a Special Assistant and Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Gwynne Taraska is research director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.

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Adam James

Research Assistant

Andrew Light

Senior Fellow

Gwynne Taraska

Director, International Climate Policy