Improving the Public's Right to Know at Rio+20
Today marks the official opening of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and representatives from government, public interest, industry, and intergovernmental organizations have gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to address the environmental challenges facing our planet. Rio+20, as the international conference is being called, is an opportunity to take stock of progress that has occurred over the past two decades and the challenge of sustainable development that we face. It also represents an opportunity to advocate for more citizen involvement in environmental policymaking.
What is Rio+20?
Rio+20 is an international conference, held today through Friday, June 22, that is supposed to create an "institutional framework for sustainable development" with concrete suggestions about how participating nations can build green economies. The conference will focus on how to promote global economic growth without damaging the planet in the process. Governments will attempt to set new benchmarks for seven core themes, including food security, access to water, and energy use.
The conference marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development. At the 1992 conference, governments agreed to a comprehensive plan of action on sustainable development, known as Agenda 21, and principles on sustainable forestry. While this was a historic event for international politics, countries generally failed to implement the agreement. Most governments did not pass domestic legislation or establish funding to implement the 1992 Rio agreement. Additionally, there were almost no international oversight mechanisms to monitor countries’ progress on the agreement.
Though there have been some sustainability achievements since 1992, such as a significant decrease in deforestation in Brazil and a recovering ozone layer, overall, the world’s environment has continued to suffer. Global carbon dioxide emissions have increased nearly 40 percent since 1992, led by rapid growth in large developing nations. Developing countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, are facing increased demands for water for agriculture and industry, yet aquifer levels are falling and rivers are increasingly polluted. Biodiversity has been decreasing, with about a 30 percent decline in the tropics, and 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks have either collapsed or are on the brink of collapse.
Also at the 1992 conference, governments confirmed that active involvement and participation of citizens and non-state actors was a prerequisite for the successful implementation of environmental policies. While greater transparency and disclosure can empower citizens, too often the information provided is inaccessible, inconsistent, or incomprehensible. Although public access to environmental information has improved over the past two decades, in too many countries, citizens – especially the poor and marginalized – still lack adequate information to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from toxins and other dangers.
One of the challenges of the conference will be to build on progress already made and to identify and address the weaknesses in transparency and participation that persist.
What are the Possible Outcomes of Rio+20?
The goal of the formal negotiations at Rio+20 is to produce a political (non-legally binding) agreement, called The Future We Want. The agreement aims to include a set of sustainable development goals for governments to improve energy, water, and food security and to protect the oceans. The agreement will set targets on creating a fairer, more prosperous and sustainable society, with deadlines and a system of checks to ensure they are met.
The original draft agreement, which began as a text of almost 20 pages, is ambitious and has now reached almost 100 pages. However, after numerous rounds of negotiations and talks that have occurred since January, when the first draft was released, governments are still arguing over points of the draft agreement. Typically, the majority of the language of international agreements is negotiated ahead of time; negotiations at conferences like this are for smaller – but often still crucial – final changes.
However, according to leaked drafts of the agreement that were being negotiated ahead of Rio+20, only about 20 percent of the language was approved before the conference, and major issues remain unresolved as the conference officially opens. Some of the topics already agreed on in the draft agreement include the need for just, equitable, and inclusive development and growth, the importance of institutions to promote access to information, public participation and access to justice, and participation by different actors and stakeholders.
Still in contention are sections on key issues, including green economy and energy and a proposed set of sustainable development goals. In particular, disagreements on these key issues are between industrialized countries (particularly the United States) and a group of 77 developing countries, commonly referred to as the G77. (Editor's note: late on June 19, a new agreement was circulated. We'll have details up as soon as possible.)
The slow progress of the pre-conference discussions had raised questions about the ability to finalize a meaningful agreement by Friday. Jim Leape, General Director of the World Wildlife Fund, warned, "As things currently stand, we are facing two likely scenarios – an agreement so weak it is meaningless, or complete collapse."
For many countries, this conference falls in a difficult political and economic period. The United States will hold presidential elections later this year. China is undergoing a change in leadership. Many countries, such as Greece, are struggling financially.
Historically, the United States has not provided forward-looking leadership during international environmental negotiations, such as climate change talks, instead demanding that other nations agree with its positions. For example, at the 1992 Rio Conference, President George H. W. Bush said that "sometimes leadership means standing alone" and did not support financing conference-supported agreements, including one on biodiversity.
Despite this history, many hope that the U.S. will show leadership and commitment on the issues at hand at the Rio+20 conference, especially those related to access to information and public participation in environmental decision making. Some are distressed, however, that President Obama will not be attending the conference; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the U.S. delegation.
Other influential leaders, such as David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Angela Merkel of Germany, are also skipping the conference. Nonetheless, there will still be a strong presence of world leaders, including Russia's Vladimir Putin, France's François Hollande, and India's Manmohan Singh. In fact, more than 130 heads of state are planning to participate, compared with 110 at the 1992 conference.
What are the Opportunities to Participate and Influence Policies and Agreements?
Participation in the official conference sessions, where government officials negotiate structure and language changes to the agreement, is closely controlled. While some civil society attendance is allowed, it is restricted to a small number of groups, and they are limited to observation. However, given the pre-conference negotiation difficulties and the decreasing expectations for the official agreement, entry into the official sessions may be less important than expected.
There already have been and will continue to be opportunities for civil society organizations to influence governments and advance goals of sustainable development. The last round of negotiations into the political document were held during the third meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom). Following PrepCom, from June 16 to 19, the Brazilian government created a space for dialogue and events involving both civil society and government representatives.
A number of civil society organizations will also be holding their own parallel events and activities during the conference. For example, the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, an independent alternative event to the official conference, runs through June 23. The summit is expected to draw roughly 10,000 participants from social, trade union, youth, women's, and indigenous organizations. The objective is to propose alternative ways of living on the planet, which would protect our natural resources instead of turning them into a commodity.
On June 19, The Access Initiative, a global project of the World Resources Institute that promotes access to information, participation, and justice in environmental issues, hosted a one-day event to discuss and advance proposals to improve citizen involvement in environmental decision making. The event, entitled "Choosing our Future: Open and Participatory Sustainable Development Governance," provided a forum for governments, civil society groups, and intergovernmental organizations to assess progress and advance proposals to discuss open and participatory environmental decision making.
There are also more than 500 on-site side events sponsored by governments, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations. The side events are conducted to highlight activities and engage in dialogue that reflects an approach to sustainable development that integrates economic, social, and environmental factors. These events and activities allow participants the opportunity to hear about countries' commitments, discuss national and international policies, and even propose changes, are where much of the substantive action is likely to occur.
U.S. ActivitiesA large delegation of U.S. officials from several departments are participating in the conference negotiations, as well as conducting stand-alone events. Since the United States is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, U.S. commitments are critical for the world. The U.S. Department of State has reserved a venue through June 22 to engage in an ongoing conversation with delegates and stakeholders at Rio+20, as well as virtual audiences around the world. This initiative will host 40 different events highlighting successful sustainable development programs and initiatives.
The EPA, for instance, is organizing a panel event on June 16 entitled "Environmental Governance and Social Inclusion." The panel will explore ways to open up environmental decision making, such as access to environmental information, public participation, policy reform, implementation mechanisms, and efforts to engage marginalized communities to promote social inclusion and environmental justice.
For those not attending Rio+20, the U.S. Center will host nine interactive webcasts. On June 22, the U.S. Center will webcast an event on women and natural resources. The event, organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), will focus on women's distinct role in managing natural resources. It will also examine the many challenges (i.e., economic, socio-cultural, etc.) women face, which may limit their participation in community activities and keep them marginalized from decision making. The objective is to identify constraints, opportunities, and strategies for addressing these challenges at the local, state, and national levels.
Despite the positive nature of many of the U.S.’s planned activities during the Rio summit, there have been shortcomings in the country’s preparation for the conference. In addition to the international agreement that countries will sign, many countries will be making specific commitments on sustainability and related issues. In the months preceding the summit, the U.S. State Department held a series of meetings and conference calls to gather input from environmentalists and others stakeholders on U.S. policy positions and country commitments. While the meetings were a welcome opportunity for many groups to voice their recommendations, government officials refused to share any details about the U.S. plans. Some level of secrecy regarding international negotiations is to be expected. However, the country commitments are entirely domestic. Disclosure of draft commitments or even topics being considered would have enabled a more robust and productive discussion with stakeholders.
Groups continue to hope for strong U.S. commitments on a wide range of issues but worry that the missed opportunity to substantively collaborate may result in fewer and weaker commitments.
OMB Watch staff will be attending various events throughout Rio+20. To prepare for the conference, OMB Watch joined an effort, known as the Three Demands campaign, to encourage public interest organizations from around the world to present their governments with a list of three demands to improve citizen participation in environmental decision making. More information on the campaign and U.S. public interest groups' three demands is available here on our website. Updates on the conference and its related activities will be on our blog, Facebook, or Twitter.