Concerned at Pace of Rio+20 Negotiations, Secretary-General Calls for Bold Action ‘for the Sake of Our Planet and Our Children’, at Assembly Thematic Debate

22 May 2012

Concerned at Pace of Rio+20 Negotiations, Secretary-General Calls for Bold Action ‘for the Sake of Our Planet and Our Children’, at Assembly Thematic Debate

22 May 2012
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-sixth General Assembly

Thematic Debate

AM & PM Meetings

Concerned at Pace of Rio+20 Negotiations, Secretary-General Calls for Bold Action

‘for the Sake of Our Planet and Our Children’, at Assembly Thematic Debate


Panel I: How Can Rio+20 Foster the Global Development Agenda?

Panel II: The Role of the General Assembly in Supporting the Rio+20 Objectives

With the much-anticipated United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development just a month away, and with intergovernmental negotiations on an outcome mired in minutiae, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called today for ambitious leadership to seize this “once in a generation opportunity” to transform ideas and aspirations into bold action “for the sake of our planet and our children”.

“We do not have a moment to waste”, the Secretary-General said, opening the General Assembly’s informal thematic debate convened to re-energize talks on possible outcomes of the Conference — known as “Rio+20” after the Brazilian city that will host the event from 20 to 23 June.  The debate, “The Road to Rio+20 and Beyond”, featured two round-table discussions dealing with issues at the heart of the Rio process, including ways the event could foster the development agenda, the Assembly’s role in supporting its objectives, and effective ways to implement any agreements reached.

“The world is watching.  The media are focused.  People — young and old — are demanding action,” Mr. Ban said.  “Yet the current pace of negotiations is sending all the wrong signals.  We cannot let a microscopic examination of text blind us to the big picture”, he continued, saying the negotiators must seize the opportunity to forge agreements on vital thematic issues:  decent jobs; food security and sustainable agriculture; clean, efficient energy sources; access to safe drinking water and sanitation; conservation of the world’s oceans; and progress in defining sustainable development goals that built on the Millennium Development Goals.

With such a foundation, world leaders attending the Rio Conference should agree that sustainable development goals with clear and measurable targets and indicators would be a central part of the post-2015 global development framework, he said.  Such goals would give concrete expression to renewed high-level political commitment for sustainable development.  “It is time to focus on what really matters”, he said, adding:  “We are one month from building the future we want; a future of greater prosperity and equitable growth on a healthy planet.”

In his opening remarks, Assembly President, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, said that, after months of deliberations, “We are close; close to a once-in-a-generation opportunity to define the future of the 7 — soon to be 9 — billion people living on our planet.”  He thanked Member States for their collective efforts thus far, but with an international consensus emerging, more must be done.  “Creative solutions are needed to get people back to work.  Growth must resume.  Only a dynamic economy can cope with the challenges of transitioning to a more sustainable model of development,” he said.

With delegations from all over the world set to gather in New York next week for the final round of informal negotiations before heading to Rio, there were still crucial decisions to be made, he said.  Today’s debate was intended to shed further light on two important areas that had emerged thus far:  the sustainable development goals; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.  “If we want to have a positive impact on the development agenda post-2015, the Rio outcome should be framed around the three dimensions of sustainable development, the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibility,” he said.

Further, Rio+20 could make a significant contribution to the United Nations development agenda without distracting from efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  And while Rio offered a timely opportunity to tackle all the interlinked concerns, poverty reduction and progress in sustainable development should remain at the heart of a new post-2015 framework.  As for a strong institutional framework, he said the outcome must establish architecture that promoted better integration of sustainable development’s three dimensions — economic, social and environmental protection.  In the end, Member States should focus on “must haves”, rather that what would be “nice to have”.  “We need to ensure that the words on the pages of the Rio+20 outcome document have meaning.  Our planet and its peoples are counting on us,” he said.

Picking up that thread, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Under-Secretary-General for the Environment, Energy and Science and Technology of the Ministry of External Relations of Brazil, said that the world faced challenges regarding all three of those dimensions.  In the environmental area, there were climate and biodiversity crises, financial turmoil in the economic sphere, and widespread unemployment and other crises in the social sphere.  That was partly the result of a model that was unable to cope with such crises and might even be generating them.  Protectionist measures and other constrictive strategies were part of that model and repeated past mistakes.  Investment should be made in growth, education and other areas, through a long-term focus on sustainable development.

“There are no easy journeys to that goal, but business as usual is no longer a choice”, he said, adding that there were different paths to sustainable development.  As such, Rio+20 would build on its historic predecessor, the 1992 Earth Summit, but from a different perspective.  Yet, the results of that earlier conference, especially its landmark action plan, known as Agenda 21, remained remarkably contemporary.  There must be “no retreat” from its principles, he said.  Civil society participation was key to the process to ensure that, as poverty was eliminated, future generations — and a growing world population — were accounted for.  Commitment to the full achievement of the Millennium Goals must be renewed within that framework, to help shape “the future we want”.

Kim Sook, Co-Chair of the Bureau for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, affirmed that a heavy responsibility fell on the international community to set things right for this generation by making the right decisions.  “We cannot afford empty words”, he added, urging that the outcome text be looked at critically as a guiding document for the next 20 years.  Essentials must be concentrated on which, with good governance, political will and other necessary factors could achieve the best future for the generations to come.

A good, quality outcome document would be a crucial indicator of the success of the Conference.  “This is the most important and critical month in our long voyage”, he said, calling for a spirit of compromise to produce a streamlined, action-oriented text.  “Let us get the job done, so that our Heads of State and Government can proudly show the results and contribute to a better future for all,” he said.

Throughout the day-long debate, experts and diplomats alike urged agreement on an outcome that was “ambitious” but “concise”, and which addressed a range of concerns, including decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, and oceans.  Yet, Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University, was among those stressing that all the details of sustainable development did not need to be resolved at Rio.  “That’s impossible, because many of them require local planning and decision-making,” he said, urging negotiators to see sustainable development not as “an event”, but an ethical approach to policymaking.  Following such a path, Rio+20 could place sustainable development at the core of the global agenda by adopting a set of “sustainable development goals”.

That idea was echoed by most of the participants, even though many cautioned about overlap with the watershed Millennium Development Goals process, which, they said, had for the first time galvanized the world around a shared agenda for eradicating poverty and hunger.  It also became clear that the sustainable development goals should be backed up by a follow-up mechanism.  Yet, one speaker said that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was “already too weak” to take on that job, while another noted that the Commission on Sustainable Development was “a compromise between a higher-level body and nothing”.

Rubens Born, of the Brazilian NGO Vitae Civilis (Institute for Development, Environment and Peace), said that left the General Assembly to drive the transition to fair sustainable development and monitor follow-up Rio+20 commitments.  He also said that, by the end of the year, the Assembly could establish a United Nations agency for environmental sustainability, and a proposal for a high commissioner/ombudsman for future generations could be discussed in the next Assembly session.


ERKKI TUOMIOJA, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, speaking from the floor following the opening session, warned that there might only be a few decades left to turn around the situation of the planet and the Rio+20 Conference would be a good indicator of the possibilities.  A strong outcome was needed, building on all three pillars of sustainability.

The economy of the future had to be inclusive and green, with people empowered to make sustainable choices, particularly women, in all spheres of society and youth, for adequate employment.  Water, the oceans and energy were also important topics, and it was crucial to recommit to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  For all those purposes, a stronger international structure was needed.

JEAN ASSELBORN, Deputy Prime Minister and Minster of Foreign Affairs of Luxembourg, said there was still “some ways to go to make the Conference the success we all hope it will be”.  Rio+20 offered the international community an opportunity it must seize, and while the overall aim was to foster renewed political commitment for sustainable development, it was fundamental that the event lead to a “clear and ambitious” outcome.  In that regard, it was essential to agree on sustainable development targets and themes, on an inclusive green economy, poverty eradication and strengthening the institutional framework for sustainable development.

He said that Luxembourg was fully committed to both sustainable development and poverty eradication; the link between those two objectives was clear and, since the 1992 Earth Summit, the Government had, among other things, fulfilled and eventually surpassed its official development assistance (ODA) commitments.  Luxembourg remained strongly supportive of the Millennium Development Goals process, and hoped that the work on sustainable development goals would be coordinated with the upcoming Millennium review process. In the meantime, Rio+20 must agree on targets for such things as water, energy, food, the oceans, sustainable production and consumption, cities and jobs. Action should also be agreed on governance, human rights and other cross-cutting issues.

Panel I:  How Can Rio+20 Foster the Global Development Agenda?

The thematic debate’s first panel discussion was moderated by Olav Kjorven, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Bureau for Development Policy.  Participating experts included Professor Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Colombia University; Brice Lalonde, Executive Coordinator Rio+20; Martin Khor, Executive Director, South Centre; Jose Manuel Mendoza Nasser, Chief Executive Officer, Viridi International; and Helio Mattar, Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption.

Opening the panel, Mr. KJORVEN highlighted the overwhelming impact the Millennium Development Goals had had over the past decade.  Indeed, they had introduced the idea of a shared global development agenda, which was “extremely valuable and extremely precious”.  The Goals had galvanized people worldwide in support of a people-centred framework to eradicate poverty and hunger and to promote equality.  Yet, the Millennium framework was not without its limitations, including that it had failed to include processes to address issues that had emerged in the wake of its creation, including the economic and financial crisis.

Therefore, Rio+20 must provide a platform for forward movement on sustainable development and promoting achievement of previously agreed global development goals.  “ Rio will not provide all the answers; far from it.  But it can, and should, help provide the parameters for bringing the MDG framework and the emerging sustainable development agenda together,” he said, expressing the hope that the Conference would help build an inclusive consultation process among civil society, the private sector and Member States.

Mr. SACHS said that success at Rio was crucial for the world’s well-being.  “Yet we are at a critical moment with a lack of consensus on many important issues.”  With one month to go, the world must adopt sustainable development — a new framework for the post-MDG era.  Indeed, in the coming decade, sustainable development, including environmental sustainability, “will be the existential question for Earth and humanity.”  So, he said, adopting sustainable development goals would be “the single most important outcome that we can hope for.  If we do that, this summit will be historic.”

All the details of sustainable development did not need to be resolved at Rio.  “That’s impossible, because many of them require local planning and decision-making”, he said, urging negotiators to see sustainable development not as “an event”, but an ethical approach to policymaking.  Following such a path, Rio+20 could place sustainable development at the core of the global agenda by adopting a set of “sustainable development goals”.  That did not mean abandoning the fight against poverty, hunger and disease.  He said negotiators must make sure that fight — as outlined in the Millennium Goals — was among the very first of any agreed sustainable development goals.  Rio should extend the fight against poverty for another 15 years, towards ending deprivation on the planet.

Heading into the homestretch, he cautioned against being overly sentimental about the 1992 Earth Summit.  That conference had indeed been a watershed event, but there was no denying that the three much-heralded treaties it had given birth to had not succeeded.  “They didn’t mobilize society; they mobilized lawyers”, he said, lamenting the subsequent two decades of arguing over the intricacies of “what is binding and what is not”, while the health of the planet continued to deteriorate.

He said that main outcome of the Earth Summit, Agenda 21, had failed to inspire the world, mainly because it was hundreds of paragraphs.  Alternatively, the Millennium Goals had been successful because there were only eight of them.  Schoolchildren could remember them.  People on the street talked about them.  “We need to inspire the world the way the Millennium Development Goals inspired the world.  We need to aim for a framework for life in the future, and sustainable development goals can achieve that, though we might not yet be ready with the details,” he declared.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we need to aim for global inspiration and local problem solving.  Make this an historic event by putting the world on a sustainable development framework with economics, society and the environment working together.  That is my plea to you today,” he said.

Agreeing, Mr. LALONDE said that laying out a sustainable development framework would be the “most exciting and galvanizing” outcome at Rio.  But, he was concerned about the intricacies of “development” — big countries had the money and the larger “footprint”, while small countries needed to help restart growth or to catch up with the developed world.  Such issues would have to be tackled.  He was also concerned that the word “goals” might be too confusing.  In his discussions over the past few months, any time he had mentioned “sustainable development goals”, people automatically assumed he was talking about the Millennium Development Goals.  Perhaps “universal targets” or “objectives” would be better, he suggested.

Whatever the semantics, the abiding focus must be poverty eradication.  Therefore, the Rio outcome document must make clear that nothing could be achieved with so many people still mired in poverty.  The sustainable development goals must be “transformational”, he said, noting that thus far, it seemed as though all negotiating parties were “thinking big” and looking for ways to maintain both sets of goals.  Rio+20 must be a summit for action, and an event that brought together a broad cross-section of the international community to build a better world and a better future.  He added that he was concerned by what the international media would say about Rio on 23 June, the day after the Conference ended.  They would be looking to see what had been accomplished.  So, while it would be important to a agree on a process, “it will perhaps be even better to agree on one or two concrete goals”.

For his part, Mr. KHOR said the world was facing multiple crises, which only seemed to be deepening.  So, while the successes of the Earth Summit were to be applauded, lagging implementation was indeed a cause for concern.  Many elements of the economic pillar of sustainable development had been ignored and now must be addressed, including reforming international and domestic financial policies, managing debt, and providing social safety nets.  The same could be said of the environmental pillar, with unchecked production and consumption altering lives and livelihoods on every continent.

“At Rio, we need to set a framework on those issues, and we need to ask ourselves how we can use the United Nations better”, he said, calling for international cooperation to implement a new sustainable development paradigm, as well as to help developing countries with financing and technical cooperation.  The Conference should not be as much about “goals” as about “process”, he continued, calling for measures that identified objectives and barriers to sustainable development, and which set out an implementation framework.

The Rio process must identify future actions that fairly represented all three sustainable development pillars — economic, social and environmental.  “Can we do it before Rio?  I hope so”, he said, expressing some doubt about the ability of existing structures to carry forward such a framework.  He supported the growing momentum behind establishing a “sustainable development council”, managed by an intergovernmental body, to support the work of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Secretariat of the Commission on Sustainable Development, “which we all know are too weak”.  Such a council could integrate the work of the three sustainable development pillars.  He was also concerned about what he called “the sensitive SDG and MDG interface”, because the processes related to the Millennium Development Goals “have already left the station” and people working on those Goals feared they would be handed down some sort of edict from Rio that they would be forced to implement.

Also highlighting the need bring together all the elements of social development, Mr. MENDOZA-NASSER said that his company had focused on employment creation, energy, food, cities, water and sanitation, and oceans.  He lamented the world’s bias against rural areas, which had served to widen the gap between the sustainable development “haves and have-nots”.

A key to addressing that challenge was to meet the increasing demand for sustainable housing — “the basis for human dignity” — in drylands, rural areas and slums.  Viridi’s implementation model placed an emphasis on traditional knowledge and local decision-making.  As for the Rio process, he said focusing on housing and, more broadly, green, sustainable structures, would strengthen the resilience of those communities in urban areas and slums “through a single smart action”.

The final presenter, Mr. MATTER, said that heading into — and looking beyond — Rio, it would be absolutely crucial to understand the extent of the changes that would be required to address current uncontrolled production and consumption patterns.  By example, he said that today 16 per cent of humanity was responsible for 78 per cent of total consumption of goods and services.  More troublingly, the planet’s capacity of renewable resources had already been outstripped by 50 per cent.  That was complicated by the fact that the global middle class would grow by 150 million people each year through 2050.  “At this rate, by 2050 or so, four planet Earths will be required to supply all the products and services that will be demanded,” he said.

Ultimately, there was a need to change both the predominate lifestyle among the richest segment of the planet and to change overall models of production.  That would lead to a “society of well-being and better livelihoods and more in balance with the environment”.  With that in mind, he said that any agreed sustainable development goals must identify major changes for production and consumption that were tantamount to “a transformation of civilization” and requiring the engagement of all social actors — from teachers to politicians.

For starters, he said, Rio+20 could begin the conversation on changing consumption and production patterns by agreeing on a mechanism by which major corporations would set aside small percentages of their advertising budgets to support awareness-raising among consumers about the impact of their consumption on the planet. In addition, such a transformational framework could also aim to promote social inclusion and bolster education with a focus on individual actions.  That could be accompanied by an easily understandable framework of business behaviour, backed by corporations and Governments, to promote, among others, durable products over disposable ones; waste reduction and product redesign; and multiple use products and services.

During the brief discussion that followed, Member States shared their perspectives, and looked forward to an ambitious outcome that carried forward the aims of the Millennium Development Goals.  Several speakers stressed that those historic targets, especially eradicating poverty and hunger, must not be “left by the wayside”.  A representative from Nauru, speaking also on behalf of Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Pacific Small Island Developing States, urged commitment to bolstering sustainable development’s environmental pillar, which was a vital link to achieving all other development targets, not just for the countries in her region, but the world over.

Also speaking were the representatives of Mexico, Colombia, China and Nepal, as was a representative of the delegation of the European Union.

Panel II

The afternoon panel discussed the role of the General Assembly in supporting the objectives of the Rio+20 Conference.  Moderated by Narinder Kakar, Permanent Observer of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to the United Nations, panellists included Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Director-General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI); Steve Bernstein, Associate Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs of the University of Toronto, Canada; Felix Dodds, Director of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future; Pat Mooney of the ECT Group; and Rubens Born of Vitae Civilis.

Introducing the panellists, Mr. KAKAR said that it was evident that full implementation of Agenda 21 commitments was lagging; lack of financial resources, inadequate capacity and limited public awareness were among major obstacles.  New modalities and a pragmatic approach were needed to reach critical goals, he said.

Dr. PACHAURI said that the General Assembly, as the preeminent world meeting place, was critical for the implementation of the Rio+20 outcome.  Knowledge and science were to be the drivers of action in the twenty-first century and must be used to counter global problems.  So far, there had been an impact of the sciences on longevity and education, but extreme poverty, inequality and environmental risks were great threats.  Describing some of the anticipated impact of climate change, including extreme weather events, he said that development must not only be sustainable, but resilient.  Integrated, systemic approaches were needed.

Greenhouse gas levels must be urgently contained, he said.  In that context, there was good news in last year’s special report in regard to the potential of renewable energy.  Policies would play an enormous part in realizing that potential for the billions of people that now had no access to modern energy.  He pointed to the distribution of solar lanterns in a market-based manner as a sustainable practice in that regard.  The Assembly could help create conditions for the widespread use of such technologies through institutional responses, and by creating momentum through resolutions that would ensure modern sustainable energy was available to all.

Dr. BERNSTEIN said that Rio+20 still could become what he called a “constitutional moment” of transformative change with long-term impact.  A lack of high-level political commitment had hobbled efforts so far, however.  The General Assembly could mobilize civil society and the private sector to put sustainable development in place.  Right now, UNEP was lacking a coherent programme.  An enhanced status and political backing for UNEP — without it becoming a specialized agency — was needed, allowing a focus on implementation of existing treaties in the next few years through presence at the regional level, requiring more funding.  An increased ability to coordinate across the United Nation system would also be positive.

Turning to the Rio Conference, he said that concrete goals could be consolidated in the years up to 2015, with follow-up done possibly by a sustainable development council, although that possibility was fraught with political problems.  He asked whether, however, the Economic and Social Council could effectively fulfil the follow-up function, given that it had an enormous agenda already.  Issues needed a dedicated champion.  Through a dedicated group, the General Assembly could empower the follow-up process.

Dr. DODDS said that sustainable development goals, three to five of them, were needed as part of the outcome of the Rio Conference.  The Commission on Sustainable Development was a compromise between a higher-level body and nothing.  Reviewing the Commission’s activities in the past two decades, he said the kind of functions that a new sustainable body should have included monitoring and review of commitments, new issues, implementations of goals, and universal cooperation, including a strong scientific interface.

An inter-agency committee should be at the table, as should major groups and other stakeholders.  Parliaments should be involved and possibly local and regional bodies should coordinate with the international body.  He said that corporate sustainability issues, left out of the 1992 document, should include material relevant to small and medium-sized enterprises.  Implementation was as important as the text of the outcome, and for that a global partnership was needed.  The resulting institutional structure must respond to that need.

Dr. MOONEY said that a positive trend in the past few years was greater collaboration between civil society, Governments and inter-Governmental organizations, which might be further improved at Rio.  Technology transfer was another area that could make advances, but best practices in that area needed to be discussed concretely in the negotiations.  The United Nations needed some sort of office for technology assessment for that purpose.  He found it incredible that after the advances of the past few years, no such unit existed — vast amounts of resources had been wasted as a result.

In that context, he noted that there had been hundreds of experiments in geo-engineering related to climate in the past half-century, to manipulate the Earth’s climate system.  It was critical to discuss that issue before the Rio Conference, so that individual entities did not try manipulating the planet on behalf of the rest of the world and without its consent.

Dr. BORN said that the Rio+20 process related to core values of the United Nations, and it was critical that the Assembly be integrally involved in the outcome.  The Assembly must provide leadership, pressure, boldness and effectiveness in changing the course of humanity away from an otherwise inevitable catastrophe caused by unsustainable and unfair ways of production, distribution and consumption.  A body at the highest level of the United Nations was needed to accelerate a fair transition to sustainable development.  The General Assembly, in that light, could transform the Economic and Social Council into a council for sustainable development.

In addition, by the end of the year, the Assembly could establish a United Nations agency for environmental sustainability, and a proposal for a high commissioner/ombudsman for future generations could be discussed in the next Assembly session.  Among other measures, the Assembly could raise the profile of the Earth Charter, request work on unsustainable labour from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and help establish a predictable, augmented flow of resources for sustainable development.  In short, he said, it was time to let the United Nations be bold and “let the people in”, to “build the future we want…in the short time we have left”.

Following those presentations, speakers that did not have a chance to respond to the morning panel made statements, including the representatives of the United Republic of Tanzania, Norway, Argentina, Cuba, Bolivia, India, Morocco, United Arab Emirates and Canada.  In regard to the afternoon’s topic of the General Assembly’s role, some of the speakers stressed the importance of that body in renewing multilateralism and strengthening democratic procedures in relationship to the negotiations leading up to Rio+20 and its implementation afterwards.  In addition, many speakers said follow-up to the original Rio conference was inadequate and urged the Assembly to play a stronger role by requesting more accurate data, with some supporting new United Nations entities for that purpose.  Many called for a single post-2015 framework with greater coherence.  Other speakers called for the enhancement of UNEP’s effectiveness.

Starting off the afternoon list of speakers, the United Nations Environment Programme representative said that the strengthening of the Programme had been on the United Nations agenda for decades.  She said that Rio+20 would determine whether there was will to accomplish such strengthening, including giving the programme the means to implement policies it had established over the years.  Adequate and reliable resources were critical for that purpose.  Speakers in the afternoon list also stressed the need to fulfil commitments to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals.

The representative of Civicus (on behalf of all nine major groups) called for holding to the principle of “non-regression”; that is, not retreating from previous agreements and restoring the original aspirations of 1992.  Like others this afternoon, the representative of Belarus saw the Assembly role as important in relation to universal obligations for sustainable development, technology transfer and enhancement of the effectiveness of the Commission for Sustainable Development.  Also speaking on the afternoon list were the representatives of Benin, Belarus, Egypt, Colombia and China.

Representatives of the European Union and the major groups for trade and youth also spoke.

Mr. AL-NASSER also made a closing statement in which he thanked the day’s participants.  Looking at major points brought up by speakers, he highlighted the focus on sustainable development goals for the period following 2015, as well as proposals for institutional changes that assured universal scope and was able to monitor and follow up on the fulfilment of commitments.  Reiterating the importance of the work ahead, he called on all to translate universal aspirations into global actions in the period up to Rio.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.