Rio+20: A Sustainable Future for the Pacific Islands?
July 13, 2012
The June 20–22 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20, proved to be a mixed bag for the Pacific Islands, which have an enormous stake in seeing sustainable development take root.
One might deduce from media reactions that the Rio+20 conference was an abject failure. But claims that the conference failed because no binding commitments were achieved do not take into account its real purpose as an agenda setter.
The concluding document of the conference, titled The Future We Want, embodies a vision of what sustainable development should look like. It was formulated to follow in the footsteps of the United Nations’ Millennium Declaration and serve as the conceptual foundation for the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are set to expire in 2015.
To properly asses Rio+20’s results for the Pacific Islands, one must evaluate the kind of future the document envisions on issues that affect the Pacific Islands and the quality of the voluntary commitments participant countries made to address those issues.
The Rio+20 conference was itself a critique of the MDGs’ “ends justify the means” approach to development. It relied instead on the concept of sustainable development as originally defined by the United Nations’ 1987 report Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report: “. . . development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Brundtland Report highlights how development can be sustainable only if addressed as a complex relationship between the environment, human welfare, and the economy.
To embody this definition, the Rio+20 conference allowed all stakeholders, including states, nations, political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and anyone with an Internet connection who had an opinion, to participate in shaping “The Future We Want.” The 45,000 participants involved in creating the document could be seen either as the ultimate manifestation of global civil society or, as the Pew Environment Group’s Susan Lieberman called it, a “12-ring circus.”
With so many competing voices the results were unsurprising. The tone of “The Future We Want” is moderated by a lack of consensus. The 719 voluntary commitments that came out of the conference were made primarily by UN agencies, NGOs, and some private companies. Making coordinated efforts toward supporting sustainable development is an important step for global civil society; on the other hand, voluntary commitments from states are critical for affecting change, and such commitments were notably absent at Rio+20.
The Pacific Islands have regularly been disappointed by the international community’s failure to fulfill commitments on issues critical to their survival, including ocean degradation, overfishing, and energy dependence. Sustainable development on a global scale would improve the Pacific economies and also mitigate those dangers. Despite Rio+20’s problems, the Pacific Islands’ agenda enjoyed some noteworthy successes, as some of strongest statements in the concluding document cover the Pacific Islands’ key concerns:
- Marine protection: Some of strongest commitments in “The Future We Want” pledge to “…protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems” (paragraphs 158–177). They emphasize that this should be accomplished through the framework of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and commit stakeholders to intensify efforts to manage fish stocks. The commitments are voluntary but substantial if carried out. For example, the United States, Italy, and Germany pledged to reduce sea pollutants including litter and even agricultural runoff that causes hypoxia. This growing concern for the health of the ocean is undoubtedly welcome news for the Pacific Islands, which have large exclusive economic zones and are dependent on the ocean for food, employment, their culture, and their way of life.
- Renewable energy: The energy section of “The Future We Want” (paragraphs 125-129) expresses the Pacific Islands’ interests in renewable energy. For islanders, isolation makes fossil fuels an expensive import, and becoming energy independent through renewable sources like solar and wind is a priority. This goal has already found traction through the voluntary commitments of the Barbados Declarations, in which Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway agreed to assist Fiji, Nauru, Palau, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, and Tuvalu in reaching their renewable energy goals by 2030 at the latest.
Unfortunately, Rio+20’s relative achievements on marine protection and renewable energy stand in contrast to the mining section of the concluding document (paragraphs 227 and 228), which is incompatible with the goal of sustainable development. Although seabed and onshore mining in Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea will undoubtedly boost GDP and provide potential for development, extractive industries should not be categorized as being sustainable. Most export profits from mining go to the companies that make the initial investment and, compared to other industries, relatively little is reinvested in local communities. From an environmental perspective, it remains unclear what effects seabed mining will have on ocean ecology, and above-ground mining is destructive to what little land Pacific Islanders have. One need only look to the skeletons of Nauru’s phosphate industry as testimony.
From the perspective of the Pacific Islands, Rio+20 addressed many important concerns and inspired some voluntary international action. Going forward, the real test of the conference is yet to come. Only time will tell whether voluntary commitments will be met and whether The Future We Want will produce the kind of tangible goals that will inspire state-led action, as the Millennium Declaration did over a decade ago.
(This Commentary first appeared in the July 12 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Elke Larsen is a research assistant with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.