Civil society at Rio+20: Participant or observer?

Wednesday marked the first day of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, commonly referred to as Rio+20 as it seen as a successor to the Earth Summit that took place in the same city in 1992.  The draft agreement presented by Brazil, the host country, to delegates as they arrived at the conference has been greeted with dismay by civil society groups who believe that it “does not reflect [their] aspiration.”  Senior NGO representatives have since requested that the opening paragraph be amended to remove reference to the “full participation of civil society”.

These disappointments, felt by NGO representatives who had higher hopes for Rio+20, point to mixed expectations between delegates and NGOs over the role of NGO consultation in improving the quality and accountability of the final agreement.  When the initial draft, entitled “The Future We Want” was published on 16th June, civil society responded with “The Future We Don’t Want,” an e-petition deriding the draft and calling for “transitional actions for global sustainable progress.”    The lack of substantive CSO input into the most recent draft highlights the struggles civil society faces in affecting the course of negotiations, despite its involvement in the preparatory process.    This reflects the continued inequitable distribution of power in global governance with respect to climate change and sustainable development.  Whilst progress has been made vis-à-vis increasing the voice of developing countries since the 1992 Earth Summit, these benefits have accrued to the dominant emerging economies, as evidenced by the significant role of Brazil in authoring the draft.    However, civil society and the least developed countries remain on the fringes.  Given the lack of NGO participation in preparing the draft it is unsurprising that their representatives requested the paragraph claiming such be removed. 

One key issue that demonstrates the limited input of civil society to the draft document is  the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, which are estimated at $400 billion by the International Energy Agency and up to $1 trillion by Oil for Change    One of the challenges in promoting increased uptake of renewable energy sources is their high price per unit with respect to energy from fossil fuels.  That fossil fuels prices are kept low by subsidies means that this price difference is to some extent artificial:  a removal of subsidies would make renewable energy more competitive and reduce demand for fossil fuels.  In this way, subsidies provide economic incentives for environmentally damaging behaviour and contribute to climate change.  The initial draft did acknowledge this issue but only tentatively, supporting the eventual phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies and agreeing to their gradual elimination. There followed a high profile Twitter campaign in addition to explicit demands from numerous civil society groups to pledge swifter and more decisive action on this issue.  The negotiators did relent and inserted further paragraphs concerning subsidies but these were tokenistic, enabling them to claim that attention had been paid to the demands of civil society without actually fulfilling them.  On 19th June the text was amended to reaffirm pre-existing commitments to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, whilst merely “inviting” countries that do not yet have such commitments to “consider” introducing them.  There is still therefore no clear plan or binding agreement to end this practice.  Whilst there have therefore been some changes to the draft on this issue, the primary goal of CSOs of an end to fossil fuel subsidies is nevertheless unlikely to occur in the short or medium term in the absence of clear, binding commitments.

From this example, it can be seen that the expectations of civil society regarding Rio+20 may have been misplaced.  Hopes were high among some actors given their participation at all stages of the preparatory process of the conference, their mass presence at the summit itself including representation at the High Level Roundtables and the political will of certain key delegates such as EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard for a firm agreement.  However, the result as it stands is more a recognition of the challenges facing the globe rather than a clear plan as to how to surmount them.  Although the conference is not yet over, and there remains time for binding agreements to be reached, NGOs are not optimistic that this will occur.  It remains to be seen precisely what influence civil society would deem adequate for them to accept that the draft has been drawn up “with their full participation.”  Whilst a more equitable global governance regime that takes account of at least some of the demands of civil society is certainly desirable, it may be counter-productive for NGOs to distance themselves from all but the perfect agreement.  More explicit conditions for their approval would go some way to bringing about a more inclusive document.