Until about 5 minutes ago, I was accidentally a part of the Swedish delegation to the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development. As I was waiting for the Opening Ceremonies to begin launching the Rio +20 Conference, I took an empty seat behind the Swedish delegation, as we typically can do this at meetings at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. But I’m no longer in New York now, and at the Rio +20 conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, delegations are here with droves of representatives. Luckily, a representative from Swaziland, my neighbor, let me know that usually the United Nations has a separate section to sit in, so I quickly scurried away before the Swedish reps could arrive.
As the 20 year follow-up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the big question on everyone’s mind is, “What will we get out of Rio +20? It is important? Will it make a difference?” A lot of recent press has downplayed the role of the negotiations here, and the usefulness of the conference. People are saying, “They’re sending Prime Ministers, not Presidents”, and “what do you do with a 200-page political document”? Rio + 20 is supposed to outline the path that countries must take in order to better achieve sustainable development for the next 20 years. Just as the Earth Summit led to the eventual establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 (establishing 8 goals that all member states would try to achieve by 2015), the Rio +20 Conference will result in the establishment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These will incorporate more environmental elements, and will serve as a “next step”, beyond the timeline for the MDGs.
So before I vacated my seat to make room for the Swedish delegation, I struck up a conversation with the Swaziland representative, Irma Allen from the Environmental Authority in Swaziland, and asked what she hoped to get out of the conference. Ms. Allen picked up her tote bag and showed me that it was from the Earth Summit in 1992. “I was here in 1992 when they had the first one!” Ms. Allen then went on to tell me about how it was at that time that she worked with a few others in Swaziland to start the Environmental Authority, Swaziland’s equivalent of the EPA. While they have worked hard to make the EA a legitimate institution, they now need to decentralize it, and instill within the other sectors of the country its importance. So Ms. Allen is here to examine models other countries have used and best practices for expanding the reach of the Environmental Authority. And as the President and Prime Minister will be attending, she mentioned that the need to keep invested political will strong is extremely important as well. Thus, while so many people are focused on the diplomats in attendance and the negotiations taking place, it is obvious that far more will be going on at the Conference than what happens in that negotiations room.
As the Opening Ceremonies commence, Rio +20 Preparatory Committee Co-Chair Kim Sook entreated the audience, “The whole world is watching, and we must deliver”.
Mr. Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of the Rio +20 Conference urged the delegates to increase the speed of the pre-negotiations, calling the Pre-committee negotiations as, “Three make it or break it days”. Of the focused political document to emerge, he demanded, “It must be action-oriented. It must not be a document that looks good on paper”.
And with that, the splinter groups on various topics such as SDGs, oceans, gender/education/transport/cities/mining, and desertification were directed to their various rooms. All that was missing seemed to be the gun shot calling forth the race horses from their gates. And we’re off!