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Rio+20 Will Definitely Not Be a Spectacular Success, Says Vice-Chair of Preparatory Bureau

Czech Professor Bedřich Moldan has been involved in the negotiation process for the Rio+20 conference right from the beginning as Vice-Chair of the Bureau of the Preparatory Committee. “I hope it will not be a complete failure,” he says in an interview in which he openly expresses his disbelief in a bold outcome of the event. What is more, he reveals his opinion on whom to blame for it.

Bedřich Moldan

Prof. Bedřich Moldan – Currently serves as Vice-Chair of the Bureau of the Preparatory Committee for the UNCSD 2012 (Rio+20). His record of titles and public offices is impressive. A few are worth a mention. He is a professor of Environmental Science at the Charles University in Prague where he serves as the director of the Environmental Centre. He has held high political posts, including Minister of Environment of the Czech Republic and Member of Parliament of the Czech Republic. On an international level, he attended the first Rio conference (UNCED) in 1992 as Chairman of the PrepCom Working Group III and acted as Vice-Chairman and Rapporteur of the Main Committee. He was Coordinating Lead Author within the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment initiative and served as Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the UN Commission of Sustainable Development. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

When you look at the negotiation process, would you say that Rio+20 will be successful, or will we witness mere shadows of the conference held in Rio 20 years ago?
Bedřich Moldan:
This question is too straightforward. I think it’s not possible to answer it directly, because we should at least look at the history briefly and the reasons why the Rio+20 conference was called up.

Let’s start with the Rio conference (The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) 20 years ago. This was the sort of apex of environmental thinking and success in persuading the global community that environment is very important and that it must be incorporated into mainstream politics. The conference was held in the middle of a rather euphoric situation worldwide because it was just after the end of the Cold War and everybody was speaking about peace and how we will shape everything in a new way. The conference resulted in successful negotiations of the enormous bible of sustainable development, called Agenda 21, which basically contains every aspect of how to proceed to be sustainable in any area. What’s more, the first Rio conference was not only an intergovernmental process, but for the first time in history there was even direct involvement from the so-called Major Groups (Business and Industry, Children and Youth, Farmers, Indigenous Peoples, Local Authorities, NGOs, Scientific and Technological Community, Women, Workers and Trade Unions) and they had their own chapters in the documents. So it was a very detailed document on particular issues and the whole feeling was something like ‘mission accomplished’.

Five years later, in 1997, there was another summit, which was not referred to as a “summit”, but in fact, it was. It was called the UN General Assembly Special Session and it was something like a cold shower. There, it was clearly stated that the state of the environment worldwide is deteriorating and that patterns of production and consumption are going on in the same manner as before and that something must be done about it. Two conclusions were drawn: strategies for sustainable development must be made at a national level and a new summit must be called up  namely Johannesburg 2002. In Johannesburg these strategies were reviewed and basically all kinds of ideas and commitments made in Rio were confirmed. Nothing was added to them because the Johannesburg summit focused on the implementation of  commitments. The product of the summit was the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation. From the title it is evident that  it was a low profile document. In reality, it was in fact a rather thorough check list of things that should be done.

A few years after Johannesburg, people realised that nothing had changed and the world was on the same trajectory as before no changes in consumption patterns, no changes in production patterns, some shoots of green economy here and there but the course of economy worldwide had not changed. Therefore there was an initiative that something should be done about it. The only answer the UN was able to develop was to call the world leaders and tell them: ‘Look, you must finally do something’. So in the end a new summit was born called Rio+20.

What are the tasks for Rio+20? Is it only to reaffirm that something has to be done?
Tasks were explicitly put in resolution by the UN General Assembly. Basically there are three topics for the conference: 1. Review what progress in implementing sustainable development has been achieved so far; 2. Green economy, 3. Institutional framework for sustainable development.

Green economy was from the very beginning viewed with suspicion from developing countries, namely G77/China. (The Group of 77 was established in 1964 by 77 developing countries. Today their number has increased to 131 countries, but the name remains.) Group 77/China succeeded in diluting the title of this section and it is now called “Green economy in context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”.

I’m afraid that for outsiders it’s hard to understand the difference between “Green economy” and “Green economy in context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”.
It’s a strange situation because the term “sustainable development” is understood by G77/China countries in a different way than by the rest of the world. The G77/China countries understand it not to mean “sustainable” but more along the lines of “going on forever”, in other words something which lasts. They understand it in the way that it is a stable, assured development for their countries. This understanding certainly incorporates environmental aspects as well, but it does so indirectly. The main issue for them is development. Therefore the term “green economy in the context of sustainable development” has a special meaning. It means that green economy, whatever it means, is just the instrument for what they call sustainable development.

If we compare the original zero draft of the Future We Want (it was the very first draft of the document to be negotiated at the Rio+20 conference), there is rather strong language on green economy, but it tapers down. Now it has almost disappeared from the text, because G77/China are looking at green economy with suspicion. They think it’s a new green conditionality and that it could lead to trade barriers, it could lead to world ecological standards that would be unbearable to them, that it would not respect national peculiarities and interests.

Bedřich Moldan

Bedřich Moldan takes part in a debate about the Rio+20 conference, Prague, February 2012. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

It seems like one of main issues of the conference will not be successfully addressed in the final document.
It is simply diluted. But on the other hand, the rest of the world is clever enough. If there is no way to put it in the chapter with green economy, then there is another chapter (Framework for Action) with many different issues and basically, without calling it green economy, green economy is somehow shifted into this chapter.

Eh, it seems the negotiation process has quite a few peculiarities. However, now we can come back to the first question …
Ok, let’s answer the first question. Right now the situation is not very promising and I think that Rio+20 will almost certainly not be a spectacular success.

But there are several things which are positive. One thing is that the world, governments, and stakeholders are absolutely unified in understanding that there should be transition to sustainable development in the original sense and that it is a big challenge which hasn’t been fulfilled. And whatever the outcome of Rio+20 will be, this could be seen as a small or not so small step in the right direction. From that point of view, the whole process hasn’t been stolen, it keeps on going in the right direction albeit very, very slowly.

What are the reasons for the slowdown?
We may say there are three world powers: the USA, China (maybe with India) and the EU. And each of them is in a very difficult situation. In the USA it’s election year, China is in a period of transition to the new Central Committee and in Europe we have an economic crisis. So none of them is in good shape to make bold decisions.

However, if we talk about the environmental champions of Rio+20 negotiations, in first place would definitely be the EU, followed by countries like Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein. This is one side. Interestingly enough, the USA is somewhere in the middle. Mostly the spoilers are G77/China when they act as a bloc. They are always able to agree on rather aggressive notes and their main job is mostly to disagree with many positive proposals. They only get positive when they ask for money and technology transfers free of charge, for investment finances, for new and additional resources, etc. Among the G77, a group of Latin American countries known as ALBA (for example Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) is probably the worst.

What exactly does it mean? That they don’t support any proposal?
Well, they have a peculiar situation with objecting to things which they sometimes developed themselves, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The idea was developed by Columbia and Guatemala.

Regarding the Sustainable Development Goals, there has been almost nothing agreed on this issue yet.
It’s true, but at least the idea has been agreed on. The basic disagreement regarding this issue is, among others, whether it should be an intergovernmental process or a UN process. Europe asks for the process led by the UN Secretary General while G77/China is against that, insisting that the agreement must be left mainly to national governments. Unfortunately, this disagreement could kill the whole idea.

What are the arguments behind these two aproaches?
The argument for the UN-led process is that this is the only way to have a sort of global, compact and rather defined process. If this is deluded by all kinds of negotiations among governments, then it’s almost sure it will go nowhere and finish in a big mess. I think it’s probable that G77/China doesn’t like the idea of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We’ve talked about green economy and the Sustainable Development Goals. What about the institutional framework for sustainable development what’s at stake here?
It has two parts. One is about the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the other one is about abolishing the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD). One possibility is to create the Council for Sustainable Development instead of the Commission.

What progress would it mean?
CSD is a very low-key institution, actually, because it’s just one of many functional commissions belonging to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The newly created council would report directly to the General Assembly, so it would get a much higher position within the UN hierarchy. The other option is to reform ECOSOC. However, to my understanding there is no big difference between these two options and I don’t think it could solve the issue.

In fact, if I were the president of the world, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Sustainable development is not a matter of institution that will govern it. It’s not an issue for institution, it’s an overarching thing and it doesn’t make much sense to have something like a ministry for sustainable development. If you look carefully at the Future We Want, it’s actually a document about everything from human rights to gender issues, to oceans, to energy, to jobs, etc. But we have an institution for jobs, we have another for oceans, another for climate change, so it basically doesn’t make sense to have a separate institution for sustainable development. It’s OK to have a summit from time to time and see if we are on the right track or not.

But there certainly could be a tangible output regarding the UNEP to enhance it from a mere programme to a full UN agency. Unfortunately, this probably will not happen because there is resistance, especially from Latin American countries, to the proposal.

Ban Ki-moon

"Time is running out," was the response of Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, to participants at the Rio+20 informal consultations, at the end of May. Now time is running out even faster. Photo of Mr. Ban Ki-moon by Jan Stejskal /

But it has been objected by the USA and Russia as well. Is it only Europe that is promoting the higher status of UNEP?
It’s Europe and the Africans because they like the fact that UNEP is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Brazil is against the proposal as well.
Yes. I think Germany is working on Brazil. But if Brazil is against it, then it’s dead.

What about an Ombudsperson, or the High Commissioner for Future Generations, that should promote sustainable development?
This could fly. The Germans are pushing very much for it.

Would this new function have a real power to change anything?
Well, the Czech Republic is against that. We don’t think there is any merit in it. What would such a person do? It would just cost more money. How to define his/her competencies? To be honest who really cares about things like this? Maybe a couple of journalists like you, but that’s it.

An Ombudsperson would be incorporated in the UN hierarchy?
Nobody knows. There is a proposal to put it as a part of the UN Secretary General office.

Is there any part of the outcome document draft that is promising some hope?
I think that in the end the part called Framework for Action, which contains paragraphs on many particular issues like poverty eradication, oceans, transport, etc. could be the most important part of the whole outcome. Why? At one point, the EU decided to put forward what they called Goals and Targets. It was actually a good thing, but it absolutely didn’t fit into the framework of the outcome. So the problem was how to put these goals and targets into the document. The EU decided to put these goals into the part called Framework for Action. So now there are particular issues that sometimes have a suggested goal. For example, among the paragraphs regarding water there is a suggestion from the EU to set the year 2030 as a target for realizing sustainable and equitable access to safe and clean drinking water and basic sanitation. It is certainly open whether these proposals will fly or not, but it’s an attempt at least.

Actually, if you carefully read the draft document of the Future We Want, many important things are mentioned, but they will probably sink into oblivion. We are running out of time – only a small portion of paragraphs has been agreed on and the Brazilians are not demonstrating much energy to put everything together. Basically, it’s premature to decide whether Rio+20 will be successful or not, but to be honest I just hope it will not be a complete failure.

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About The Author(s)

Jan Stejskal

Jan Stejskal

Journalist, based in the Czech Republic

Journalist, currently an editor-in-chief of the - leading Czech on-line news, comments and features on environment and nature. As he has to illustrate his stories, he takes photos as well. Master degree in anthropology.

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