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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Assessing the Outcomes of Rio+20

Maria Ivanova

Ecosystems and economies are intertwined, and international cooperation is critical to addressing cross-border threats to the integrity of habitats and biomes. Economic and political effects of national policy decisions can reverberate around the world within days. Simply put, sustainability cannot be achieved without integrating environment and development at the international level. This was recognized as early as the 1970s, when governments convened at the landmark Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment to create the architecture for global environmental governance, defining sustainability as an economy “in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems” and recognizing the confluence of environmental, economic, and social concerns.

But 40 years later, global environmental, economic, and social problems have become more prominent, acute, and urgent. Consequently, governments and citizens are putting growing pressure on international institutions to deliver results as effectively, efficiently, equitably, and quickly as possible. In 2012, nearly 50,000 people representing governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, and citizenry from all over the world assembled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the largest-ever global environmental summit—the United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20—to review accomplishments and reinforce commitments.

Weary of empty political promises, analysts predicted the breakdown of Rio+20 months before it started and deemed it a “colossal failure of leadership and vision” immediately upon its conclusion. Greenpeace dubbed the event's 50-page outcome document, The Future We Want, “the longest suicide note in history.” Upon careful examination, however, it is clear that while the conference did not create a collective global vision for a radically different world, its outcomes are nonetheless significant and will likely shape global governance in the immediate decades to come.

Rio+20 resulted in important conceptual, institutional, and operational outcomes that will have a direct impact in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. Conceptually, the conference created a new narrative of sustainable development, overcoming some limitations while reinforcing others. It also rekindled countries' political commitment to sustainable development, at least in rhetoric. Institutionally, the event created a new platform for integrating economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental stewardship through the reorganization of relevant UN structures. Operationally, it stimulated a slew of voluntary commitments from governments and other actors, with pledges exceeding $513 billion. Countries also agreed to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals that will guide action in the coming decades.

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