The Two Rio Plus 20s

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil –  For the past week, delegates from nearly every UN member state have been pouring over a document that will enshrine the official outcomes of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. This is not a treaty document–governments will not be bringing it back to their parliaments for ratification and no “rules” or international law will be made. Rather, the outcome document is meant to be a reflection of where the international community has come since the first earth summit in 1992 and where sustainable development should be headed in the future.

The outcome document will be titled “The Future We Want” and early drafts included ambitious language, set high targets and was an all around progressive reflection of the next steps on sustainable development. Then, diplomats came down to Rio ahead of their presidents and heads of states and some hard political realities set in.

Negations in these types of UN meetings move forward when consensus is reached by all parties, which can result in compromises that are the lowest common denominator. Country representatives have been watering down the document in ways that are making some heads spin.  The final outcome document that has basically been agreed upon is a shell of that first draft. Yesterday, at the Rio+Social conference the head of Greenpeace International quipped, “they should call it the ‘Future We Don’t Want.’”

The thing is, that’s only part of the story of what’s happening down here. Outside the official sessions, you are seeing coalitions-of-the-sustainable-development-willing forming around specific issues and areas. Countries, NGOs, multilateral organizations and companies are banding together around concrete parts of the sustainable development agenda to move the planet forward.

For example, this morning eight multilateral development banks (including the World Bank and Asia Development Bank) pledged $175 billion of investments in “sustainable transportation infrastructure.” Also, throughout the week, The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves formed new partnerships with the governments of Canada, Sweden and Ghana. There are expectations that as the heads of state start to roll in there will be even bigger announcements, particularly around the Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative. (I am electronically bombarded with dozens of press releases every day announcing these sorts of new partnerships and commitments around very specific issues.)

There are also several smaller NGOs and social enterprises on the ground, jumping from meeting to meeting to make connections that will help their projects grow. I met some fascinating innovators of a technology that converts the kinetic energy generated when playing with a soccer ball to electricity that can be used to light a room or charge a mobile phone. The group, called Uncharted Play, is in Rio to promote their “soccket” soccer ball to NGOs and businesses who might invest or distribute their product.

So, while the “official” outcome document negotiated by governments may be disappointing, that is only one part of what is happening down here.

The other Rio Plus 20–the unofficial one–is where the much of the action is taking place. And of course, none of these meetings would be taking place if not for the official UN driven process. In the end, this conference may turn out to be a success after all.