Unexpected outcomes from Rio+20

A couple of days ago, I had coffee with a friend and ended up talking about my move from London to Glasgow, just over a year and a half ago. I told my friend that when I first moved, I started off trying to enjoy Glasgow in the same way I enjoyed London. I rented a small high-rise flat, went to the cinema on weekends, walked or got the tube to most places, and so on. But I soon realised that was a mistake.

London, hosting the Olympics right now, is very different from most other UK cities. For example, it has the largest number of cinemas and number of ethnic minority individuals in the UK, and its tube network is over 30 times longer than Glasgow’s. I realised that in Glasgow, I had to think differently. For example, cycling was faster than walking or getting the bus, moving into a larger flat provided a more comfortable space for my friends to visit, and going to the countryside was ten times better than the cinema. As I shifted my expectations, I realised I could have just as happy a life outside London, even though Glasgow was so unfamiliar. For many people, including myself, the Rio+20 Earth Summit was almost like moving out of a familiar city to somewhere very different.

Moving home can be difficult, but sometimes it’s necessary Picture: Russell Watkins/ DFID

I had prepared for Rio+20 expecting the document to be negotiated by governments, titled “The Future We Want” – to represent the major outcome of the Summit. And though important, I expected the events and activities that I was working on in the margins of the Summit to be important but not as critical as the document. Although my expectations had been formed based on historic precedent – from the original Rio negotiation in 1992 to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change conference – my expectations were unfounded. In the end the commitments made outside of the negotiating room – on natural capital accounting by governments, on transparency of environmental impacts by businesses, on sustainable energy by both governments and investors, and many more – over 100 of which are set out in this useful “Cloud of Commitments” website – represented some really tangible, practical outcomes.

There are various views on whether these “bottom-up” activities represent success – ranging from the enthusiasts such as KPMG’s Global Advisor Yvo De Boer to the naysayers such as environmentalist Bill McKibben. The Guardian’s Jo Confino summarises the pros and cons of these views well here.

But there’s also an interesting question around why the shift towards “bottom-up” activities took place. As an economist, I’m drawn to explanations focused on shifts in economic power.

It looks like there were two shifts that affected Rio+20.

First, I talked in my opening blog post for E2B about the potential impact businesses and investors can have on environmental outcomes – often bigger than entire countries. Yet it is firms that create jobs and growth. At Rio+20, companies and investors found a new space to discuss the initiatives they are taking on sustainability – creating a new sense of competition in this area. The major question now is whether this competition will drive sufficient action for reform across sectors rather than just individual leading companies.

While at the Rio+20 Summit, I participated in a discussion of an IIED paper on the sustainability performance of the extractives sector (mining, oil and gas) over the last 10 years. As the author Abi Buxton explains in this blog post, the major conclusion was that firms in the sector know the standards and best practice, but for many reasons don’t implement them. As an economist, I’m hoping to work out what those reasons are, and find ways that DFID or others in the UK government can help unlock them and reduce poverty at the same time.

Second, as the UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg implied, emerging economies such as Mexico, India, the Republic of Korea, Brazil and China are increasingly able to set the multilateral agenda. In settings like Rio+20, many (though not all) emerging economies tend to emphasise the need for developed countries to pay for the globe to achieve environmental sustainability. However, just before Rio+20, The Economist observed that these economies are increasingly prioritising domestic policies for environmental sustainability. Books such as Dambisa Moyo’s new “Winner Take All” lend credence to this new prioritisation. The Rio+20 negotiations reflected the uncertainty around whether and how domestic shifts will translate into shifts in international agreements. People like myself in government will thereby need to better understand and seek closer dialogue with emerging economies, including through fora like the G20, whose Declaration was released just before Rio+20 and included complementary environmental elements.

Had my prior expectations of the strength of Rio+20’s document borne out, perhaps we might not need to seek these more oblique, non-linear means to address environmental problems. But the fact is that times have changed and we no longer live in familiar surroundings. Our expectations and asks of summits like Rio+20 may need to continue to change. But adapting our approach to new surroundings will not necessarily be a bad thing. As one of my favourite UK economists has pointed out – obliquity is sometimes the best way. I went to Rio+20 expecting a familiar, linear result. I left convinced of the need to work in new, unconventional directions.

August 2014

This blog post was featured on E2B Pulse – the website of the UK carbon reduction network.


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