Jane A. Leggett
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy
Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
The United Nations (U.N.) Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or “Rio+20”) convenes June 20-22, 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This conference marks the 20th anniversary of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992. Governments participating in the 1992 meeting politically endorsed the objective of “sustainable development” as achieving economic, environmental, and social development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Rio+20 begins from the premise and findings that the objectives of the 1992 Rio conference have not been achieved. The U.N.’s fifth Global Environmental Outlook, published in June 2012, found significant progress toward only four of 90 internationally-agreed goals associated with sustainable development. It found back-tracking on eight goals. Stakeholders widely agree that changes in policies and institutions are desirable to improve implementation, but do not agree on means. It seems unlikely that Rio+20 will produce any agreements that would require congressional action or be legally binding. Some proceedings, however, may engender congressional interest in concepts proposed for simultaneously achieving economic, social, and environmental objectives. Rio+20 could influence views and actions internationally on development paths and practices, thereby affecting regional and global economies, demand for development aid, transnational environmental issues, and conflict incidence and resolution. Therefore, Congress may take interest in the conference. In addition, proceedings may reference the non-binding, 1992 Agenda 21, produced at UNCED in 1992; media coverage could raise questions from constituents that Members may wish to address.
The Rio+20 organizers indicate that “[g]overnments are expected to adopt clear and focused practical measures for implementing sustainable development, based on the many examples of success we have seen over the last 20 years.” However, with strongly divergent views among the expected 115 Heads of State and up to 50,000 participants, Rio+20 may be more like a trade show than political negotiations. Indeed, some observers suggest that the conference may yield many deals among private participants. It is not expected to produce a treaty or any other binding commitments of national governments. Some observers wonder whether a meaningful communique can be successfully negotiated. High-level participants will be prompted to address issues that include
- the definition of “green economy,” and whether a definition gives adequate emphasis to social aspects (e.g., “fairness”) of sustainable development;
- whether “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) should replace or supplement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed by the U.N, General Assembly in 2000 and expected to end in 2015, as well as how SDGs might be negotiated, and what priorities might be set among them;
- how to reform international environmental institutions, particularly whether the United Nations Environmental Program should be strengthened;
- what actions, if any, might lead to improved implementation of existing sustainable development goals, given slow progress so far;
- whether governments may commit to greater financial and technological assistance to low-income countries to assist their sustainable development.
Date of Report: June 18, 2012
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R42573
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