I posted back in January about the environment-development debate, the rise of the environmental agenda in international law and politics and its fall at the hands of the long lasting development agenda.  I confess that I have not closely followed Rio+20 so far but from the light reading I did over the weekend, I feel that the environment agenda in international law and politics is continuing to fade.  The environment did not need a Rio+20, it needed a Stockholm+40.

"Rio de Janeiro From a Conference Room" by Andrew Griffith on Flickr
"Rio de Janeiro From a Conference Room" by Andrew Griffith on Flickr

Journalist Richard Black noted in his piece on the early draft leaked to BBC that “poverty was declared the greatest challenge to mankind”.  I have not read extensively on the conference, but it is widely understood and accepted to have been a step back on environmental progress.

The main environment-focused points Black indicates are listed here with their associations to the Stockholm and Rio Principles:

  • Despite a strong campaign uniting the civil sector in Rio, the end to fossil fuel subsidies is not mentioned in the draft text.   This is against the spirit of Stockholm’s Principle 5, which states the Earth’s non-renewable resources must be employed in a way that safeguards them from exhaustion.
  • Capacity building for developing countries to move towards a green economy could be inferred from Rio’s Principle 12.  Targets and donation figures are being resisted, programmes and initiatives such as the “Sustainable Energy for All Initiative” are being kept quiet.
  • One positive development is that the text suggests positive steps towards the end of illegal and exploitative fishing, including increased fishing regulations and high seas protection.  This is a step forward on Stockholm’s Principle 7 regarding prevention of harm to marine life and living resources.
  • There is also a limited upgrade for the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), another great sign.
"UNEP" by linh.m.do on Flickr
"UNEP" by linh.m.do on Flickr

Admittedly, Black’s list was not exhaustive so I cannot assume that what he did not write about was not included in the draft.  Despite this, there are a number of principles from both Stockholm and Rio that are waiting to remembered.  Some of which include:

  • Wildlife, habitat and heritage – Stockholm Principle 4
  • Toxic pollution – Stockholm Principle 6
  • Consideration of the environment in planning developments, plans, programmes and policies (i.e. environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments) – Stockholm Principles 13, 14 and 15; plus Rio Principle 17
  • Education on environmental matters – Stockholm, Principle 19
  • Liability and compensation for the victims of environmental damage and pollution – Stockholm Principle 22; as well as Rio Principle 13
  • Intergenerational equity – Rio Principle 3
  • The internalisation of environmental costs – Rio Principle 16

Hopefully these important points will be covered in the Rio+20 text.  It is interesting to note that new Principles look likely to pop up: Black notes that the text promises to tackle youth unemployment, rejects the requirement of corporate disclosure of sustainability indicators, and discusses access to employment and healthcare.  

"Meeting with Mr. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UNEP, Brussels, 24 May 2011" by President of the European Council on Flickr
"Meeting with Mr. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UNEP, Brussels, 24 May 2011" by President of the European Council on Flickr

 The article thus far has demonstrated an increasing proportion of development-oriented components, which are outweighing the environment-oriented ones.  In the context of international environmental law, this is a continuing trend that started in Nairobi (1982), a conference wedged between Stockholm’s landmark Conference on the Human Environment (1972) and Rio’s Earth Summit (1992).  In Nairobi, the concept of development was first pitted against environment, and since then the environmental movement has tumbled further and further into obscurity.  The Earth Summit was the first major conference and declaration on the environment that started to formally recognise development, after Nairobi (1982) introduced the idea and the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission, 1987) clarified the concepts.  Later, sustainable development became a modern synonym for development, and by the  World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) in Johannesburg (“Rio+10”) talk about the environment became scarce.

“Rio+10” and “Rio+20” are named as such to encourage a continuation of the legacy, spirit and way of thinking of historic conference of 1992, in a bid to create another strong and effective instrument of international customary law to help the world inch closer towards sustainable development.   Meanwhile, the subject for which these conferences were originally convened, the environment, is being left behind.  The body of international environmental law that can adequately protect and manage the environment is not improving.

"Urban waterfront" by La Citta Vita on Flickr
"Urban waterfront" by La Citta Vita on Flickr

What the environment agenda needed instead of a Rio+20 conference, was a Stockholm+40.  Stockholm initiated an environmental mandate for the UN: founding the UNEP.  It discussed the urgency to prevent environmental degradation and for governments to take responsibility for their environment.  It stressed action, urgency, importance and need.  It remains the most important conference for the environment to this day.

Incidentally, a Stockholm+40 conference was held but it was not a UN conference, it was run by the Swedish Government.  While being far from a comparable conference, its outcome document included the kinds of advanced topics needed to further environmental protection: the internalisation of environmental costs, ecosystem services, the integration of sustainability into business and the Global Reporting Initiative, sustainability labelling and sustainable development planning.  The kind of topics that the environment could only dream of having in a Rio+20 declaration.

Regardless of what is published in the final Rio+20 document, it appears on track to be so weak and vague that its effect will be meaningless, therefore keeping the Rio Principles as “the golden ones”.  This was the case with the 2002 Johannesburg Declaration.  Consequentially, the environmental agenda is not losing much ground.  The environment can also cling optimistically to one quote from the Rio+20 draft:

“We emphasise the need to make progress in implementing previous commitments… it is critical that we honour all previous commitments, without regression.”

Hopefully it is still there by the time of the final document.

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