04 June, 2012

Rio+20 outcomes remain undecided after three rounds of informal talks

Sérgio Abranches

The third round of informal negotiations on Rio+20’s resolutions closed this weekend without reaching an agreement. The summit’s outcome will now depend on informal conversations along the next two weeks and on the formal talks in Rio, beginning June 13.

The lack of results notwithstanding, there were a few positive signs at the closing of the New York talks. Several delegates seemed satisfied that they’ve reached better focus this time. Some say that the general mood is good and there are no unsolvable deadlocks, on the form of non-negotiable vetoes. There is strong disagreement on some options presented and quite a lot of divergence regarding the extension and depth of what can be fully defined in Rio. The real question seems to be about the degree of ambition of decisions, and on the completeness of targets for immediate action.

Negotiating groups have been able to remove vetoes on defining a process for the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The major disagreement is whether the summit should decide on fully described and quantified goals as an annex to the Rio resolutions or just launch a process for their future development. There seems that only the European Union supports the idea of fully defining quantitative goals in Rio.

Several negotiators have said that the new system of smaller thematic working groups is working better. Brazil as the host country, and future chair of Rio+20, will keep conducting informal consultations over the next few days before the third preparatory committee meets in Rio on June 13-15. After that negotiations will continue concomitantly with the Sustainable Development Dialogues, June 16-19. The plenary sessions of Rio+20 will be on June 20-22. There is an underlying agreement that negotiators should avoid leaving unresolved issues for the heads of government/state to decide. Many have mentioned the dismal results of the Copenhagen Summit (COP15), when too many deadlocks were left for the heads of state to handle.

There has been some progress has been made on the general decision to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at Rio+20, according to negotiators. The large majority seems to agree that negotiators should define a process that leads to formatting and quantifying sustainable development goals. Where there is disagreement is on the extension and depth of what should be decided in Rio. The European Union is asking for an annex to the resolution containing quantified goals and deadlines. G77+China disagrees and says it would be premature to fully define the goals and set deadlines at this point. China has explicitly defended that the SDGs be a part of a post-2015 agenda to avoid diverting the countries from the Millennium Development Goals.

There has been agreement that the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD) within the United Nations should be considerably strengthened. This issue regards governance, the other central theme of the conference. There is a growing consensus that stronger governance for sustainable development at the UN is needed. Consensus is lacking on the shape of this structure. The major point of disagreement is how strong should UNEP become. The European Union leads the group defending that UNEP should become a specialized agency with the same institutional status as UNESCO, FAO and WHO, something like a World Environment Organizational. The U.S., China, and Brazil, among others, oppose this solution. But there is possibility of reaching consensus one step downwards which would entail significantly strengthening UNEP, perhaps even increasing its hierarchical standing within the UN structure, and considerably boosting its budget. A source has confirmed that it is very likely that a forum or council for sustainable development would be created, to articulate economic, social and environmental actions at the UN, with powers to hold high level ministerial meetings and summits of heads of state.

The European Union was the least satisfied group coming out of the last round of talks in New York. The EU Commissary for the Environment, Janez Potocnik, issued a note “regretting the lack of progress during the additional negotiation period in New York”. He also says that “it is clear that the New York discussions have run their course and further efforts will be needed in Rio”.  In the note he calls for “a strong engagement by all parties and notably the host country [Brazil] who will have a particular role in securing a success for the Conference.  Without that the chances of success in Rio will be limited.”

Another negotiator told reporters they have “spent the last few days making a mess of the text”, now their job “is to clean it up, or at least present clear options”.

Most of the job remains to be done in Rio. The general sentiment, however, is that they are not facing an unremovable stalemate. The majority of negotiators and delegates willing to speak said that talks have become more focused at the end, and that the breakdown of negotiations into several smaller working groups is starting to work. The problem is that they are starting to get focus and work more effectively less than two weeks before the conference begins.

The harder issues to tackle remain the same: the design of the new mode of global governance for sustainable development and the degree of definition of the sustainable development goals. Some negotiators have told me they will try hard no to leave any open issues for the heads of state to decide. One has told me that the aim is to create structures to support the implementation of what they will decide to do. He was thinking about the results of the Rio+10, held in Johannesburg, that issued a series of recommendations but has not taken care of creating the means for implementing them. At the end of the day is was a mere declaratory outcome. “We don’t want a declaratory outcome, we want feasible and implementable decisions,” in Rio, he said.

The G77/China has adopted a very intransigent position on some key issues, according to the evaluation of some delegates. These negotiators are specially concerned with the fact that the group – with the explicit support from China, and a more discrete one from Brazil – considers premature for Rio+20 to define sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be in place from 2015. G77/China, endorsed by Brazil, has proposed that the Rio Summit should launch a process for the development of the SDGs, giving more time to the negotiation of the scope, methodology, means of implementation, and the system for reporting, monitoring and verifying the goals, as well as the  corresponding deadlines.

Only two things have become crystal clear at the end of three rounds of informal talks around a document containing the Rio+20’s resolutions. The first one is that the degree of ambition of the outcome is on the hands of Brazil. Brazil will have a leading role in defining the degree of ambition of the decisions to be made in Rio. The second one is that delegates should prepare for several sleepless nights of negotiations when they arrive at the end of Rio’s mild, and usually gorgeously sunlit, fall season.

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