Bridges Weekly Trade News DigestVolume 16Number 18 • 9th May 2012

Consensus Proves Difficult as Rio+20 Conference Approaches

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The Rio+20 negotiation process has entered the final stages, with less than six weeks remaining before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) kicks off. Delegates held a two-week negotiating session from 23 April - 4 May in New York with the aim of finalising the outcome document for the June gathering; however, the slow pace of progress has led to a new session being scheduled for later this month in the hopes of achieving greater consensus ahead of the conference.

The June 2012 conference - set to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - marks 20 years since the landmark 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

With delegates now having had time to come to grips with the expanded ‘zero draft’ document since March’s negotiations, observers had expressed hope that progress would be made during this latest round of talks towards an outcome document that would secure a renewed commitment to sustainable development and help meet new and emerging challenges (see Bridges Weekly, 4 April 2012).

‘Zero draft’ sees little movement towards final version

Considerable efforts were made to bring the ‘zero draft’ outcome document down from 278 to 156 pages by the end of the first week. The second week saw progress slow considerably, with only 21 paragraphs being agreed ad referendum - pending agreement on the final text - by delegates. The remaining 400 paragraphs were left for the next round of ‘informal informals’ later this month.

The co-Chairs of the UNCSD Preparatory Committee - Ambassador John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda and Ambassador Kim Sook of South Korea - had attempted to reduce and streamline the text by proposing compromise language for many of the more contentious paragraphs, which was referred to as the ‘new Co-Chairs’ suggested text’ (NCST) for the remainder of the negotiations.

The bracketed text covered a wide range of long-standing divisions between delegations over both of the conference’s twin themes: the green economy in the context of sustainable development and eradicating poverty; and the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development (IFSD).

Along with traditional disagreements between developed and developing countries over existing and future development commitments, debates also continued between a number of developing country delegates over the future of IFSD and what, if any, should be the actionable outcomes of the Rio+20 conference.

At the close of the two weeks, many sides had expressed their frustration at the lack of constructive progress. During the final plenary, the Group of 77 and China (G77/China) grouping particularly emphasised the lack of compromise “from time to time” during the negotiations. According to Reuters, both civil society and private sector observers to the negotiations have criticised delegates for seemingly attempting to water-down some of the key proposals contained in the original ‘zero draft’ document in an attempt to avoid a political flop in Rio de Janeiro.

Delegates given chance for 11th hour agreement on outcome document

In his closing speech to the second round of ‘informal informals’, Sha Zukang - Secretary-General of the UNCSD (Rio+20) - issued a call to action to the delegates present, reminding them of the considerable work that still needs to be done.

He noted that the negotiating process in its current incarnation had failed and that “working methods need to change.”

“Our objective should be to arrive in Rio with at least 90 percent of the text ready,” he said. “The most difficult 10 percent should then be negotiated in Rio with the highest political support.”

During the closing plenary of the second round of ‘informal informals’, Co-Chair Kim spoke to delegates of a meeting which had taken place earlier in the day between the UNCSD Bureau and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who stressed that Rio+20 was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

This meeting prompted the UNCSD Bureau to announce that they would be scheduling an additional week of ‘informal informal’ negotiations, from 29 May to 2 June in New York. This week is designed to allow delegates the opportunity to reach a greater level of consensus on the outcome document prior to the official meetings in Brazil.

Co-Chair Kim also said that the Co-Chairs would jointly produce a new, streamlined text by 22 May to facilitate the third round of ‘informal informals’.

Ban, in an informal briefing to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday 9 May, commended the Bureau for scheduling additional negotiating days.

“I trust that this due process will unleash ambition, creativity, and the flexibility to get the job done,” he said. “After all, we cannot continue the same approach and get different results.”

“The time has come to shift gears to reach our destination in time,” he told member states, adding that countries should be “determined to confront the hard issues now - 100 percent of the issues - instead of kicking the can down to Rio.”

Sustainable Development Goals negotiations offer promise, observers say

While no agreement has yet been reached on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) - which were an initiative originally proposed by Colombia and Guatemala - sources note that the negotiations in New York saw broad support for their establishment. However, observers commented to Bridges, the politics surrounding the SDGs suggest that their launch will only be agreed at the very last minute in Rio. If so, sources suggest that a likely outcome would see a process to define the SDGs between 2012 and 2015, in order to coincide with the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) programme.

The SDGs have received backing from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who told the UN General Assembly on Wednesday that countries “should agree on launching a process to establish Sustainable Development Goals that build on the Millennium Development Goals.”

After Rio, the UN Secretary-General will appoint a High Level Panel of Eminent Persons to advise on the post-2015 way forward once the current MDGs expire, co-chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK. Ban also said on Wednesday 9 May that he would be announcing the full panel following the Rio conference.

The issues that have seen the greatest overlap in the negotiations and have so far gained the most traction as possible priority areas that the SDGs could address include: food security; integrated water management; energy; sustainable and resilient cities; oceans; sustainable natural resource management; and sustainable employment.

Last week, the delegations of Colombia, Peru, and United Arab Emirates circulated a non-paper indicting these possible issue areas and the support for them received in various consultative processes since Johannesburg in 2002.

Next steps

With the additional week of ‘informal informal’ negotiations newly scheduled for 29 May - 2 June in New York, observers expect June to be a hectic month for all those involved in the Rio+20 preparatory process.

The third and final Preparatory Committee meeting of the UNCSD will take place on 13-15 June in Rio de Janeiro, ahead of the conference itself on 20-22 June.

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the UNCSD Informal Informal Consultations: 23 April - 4 May 2012,” EARTH NEGOTIATIONS BULLETIN, 7 May 2012; “Green targets being watered down for UN summit - observers,” REUTERS, 1 May 2012.

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