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Rio Plus 20: What Prospects for the Next UN Mega-Conference?
by Stewart M. Patrick
On June 20-21, the world will descend on Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Twenty years after the last Earth Summit in Rio—heralded as an epochal event—expectations are underwhelming. No major treaties are on the table, unlike in 1992, when the event produced major conventions on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification. The world seems exhausted by UN mega-meetings, so full of sound and fury but delivering little. And at a time of continued economic difficulties, governments around the world are looking inward, despite looming environmental crises. The United States, which tried to steer the Brazilians away from a leaders-level summit, has not even decided who will head its delegation.
If this seems a depressing scene-setter, the Rio summit is not fated for failure. It may yet exceed expectations with a low-key approach focused less on the painstaking negotiation of treaties than on generating practical national commitments to advance sustainable development. In lieu of grand North-South bargains, we should expect a messier multilateralism, involving parallel national initiatives and innovative public-private partnerships.
There is growing global sentiment that the era of grand multilateral treaty-making is over. Recurrent disputes over burden-sharing, and the specter of national vetoes, tends to tie negotiators into knots. Rather than seeking common ground–and often bland consensus—among 193 diverse countries, progress at major UN conferences will increasingly depend on individual countries coming to the table to declare what they are prepared to do, at a national level, to advance internationally-agreed goals. To this end, the United States is pressing all governments coming to Rio to arrive with a list of concrete commitments on the Rio agenda’s seven critical issues: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness. The idea is to compile all of these national commitments in an online compendium.