Region under no illusions in wake of Rio+20


One of the strongest messages developed countries sent to developing nations at June’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro was not to expect large amounts of financial aid for sustainable-development initiatives. Developing countries including Mexico and Colombia delivered an equally strong message in return: they aren’t counting on it.

The North-South financing paradigm had been a centerpiece of the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, which led to important conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification. But at this year’s much less ambitious summit, called Rio+20, developed countries, hit hard by the global economic crisis, shied away from financing commitments aimed at helping developing ones make their economies more sustainable.

The backpedaling was most evident in the summit’s final 49-page outcome document, presented by Brazil on June 16, just before Rio+20 began. The text was released three days after U.N. negotiators divulged a dispute-ridden, 80-page outcome document. Faced with a logjam, Brazil, the summit’s host country, rid the original outcome document of all divisive language on North-South financing and other issues. When the summit began June 20, Brazil presented the document to the 192 U.N. member countries and, with virtually no discussion, got all delegations to sign onto it when the summit ended June 22.

Fund reference removed

The consensus came at a cost. Brazil weakened the language of the original outcome document, which called for “enhanced and new [sustainable development] financial resources to developing countries” and the creation of a US$30-billion-a-year fund to do so. That wording had been proposed by the G77 group (77 developing nations including Brazil and China). It was opposed by Canada, with the United States, the European Union and Japan taking no position while reserving the right to do so. The final outcome document as rewritten by Brazil called only for financing from a “variety of resources” and “new partnerships.”

Martin Khor, executive director of the Geneva-based South Centre, a nonprofit that promotes cooperation among developing countries, calls the final outcome document “a watered-down text” and “a code for the reduced importance that developed countries have given to financing developing ones.”

Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., deciphers the code this way: “Rio+20 drove home the message that, with the global economic crisis, industrialized nations are no longer in a position to promise large amounts of sustainable development financing to developing countries. In the future, such financing will likely be an innovative mixture of developing countries’ own money, financing from developed countries and multilateral development banks, like the World Bank, as well as private capital.”

A sign of this was the US$513 billion pledged during Rio+20 by multilateral banks, U.N. member states, U.N. agencies, Fortune 500 companies, NGOs and universities, to finance sustainability work over the next decade. But a number of large developing nations have concluded that they cannot count on outside help.

“In the last 20 years some big developing countries like Brazil have realized they’d have to shoulder the high cost of sustainable development and climate-change adaptation because they couldn’t count on help from developed countries, something Rio+20 emphasized,” says Sergio Margulis, chief technical advisor at Brazil’s Environment Ministry. “Brazil also realized it is in our own self-interest to do so.”

Case in point

He cites Brazil’s launch in 2004 of an ambitious, well-funded plan to combat Amazon deforestation, at a time when its deforestation rate was rising quickly. “Brazil has continued to fund the plan, even though the Amazon deforestation rate has dropped a lot since 2004,” he says. “The decision to continue was not an economic one, based on whether Brazil had the money, but a political one.”

Conferees cited other examples of Latin nations taking the lead. Costa Rica, they pointed out, has voluntarily committed to becoming a “carbon neutral” nation by 2021. Mexico, meanwhile, has passed a law, signed June 5, that obligates the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30% from business-as-usual levels by 2020 and 50% from 2000 levels by 2050. Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Mexico’s environment secretary, highlighted that law in a speech at the plenary session on the first day of the summit. “My country has made a clear commitment to develop sustainably, and is doing its part,” he told the audience.

On the last day of Rio+20, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sounded the same theme. At a news conference, he said: “Each country has to individually commit to the undertaking [of meeting its sustainable development goals] based on its own possibilities and circumstances.”

- Michael Kepp

Martin Khor
Exective Director
South Centre
Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: +(41 22) 791-8050
Enrique Lendo
Head of International Affairs
Mexican Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat)
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5628-3906
Sergio Margulis
Chief Technical Advisor
Brazilian Environment Ministry
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 2028-1532
Asad Rehman
Head of International Climate
Friends of the Earth for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland
London, U.K.
Tel: +(44 20) 7566-1688
Jacob Scherr
Director of Global Strategy and Advocacy
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 289-6868
Documents & Resources
  1. For final Rio+20 outcome document: Link

  2. For original document: Link