Rio+20 or Bust: Zero Draft of Outcome Document for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development Released

In June, the world's leaders will meet in Rio to set the global sustainability agenda for the next decade. Boa sorte!

The United Nations has released the long-awaited "zero draft" of outcomes for the parties to negotiate at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD).

To be held in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22, UNCSD is also known as "Rio+20" as it marks the 20th anniversary of 1992's "Earth Day," the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which was also held in Rio.

The goal of the conference is to set the global sustainability agenda for the next decade. The pressure is on for this landmark event, and the delegates know it.

"Rio+20 will be one of the most important global meetings on sustainable development in our time," said Kim Sook, South Korea's ambassador to the United Nations and the co-chair of the Bureau of the Preparatory Process of the UNCSD in a speech at the Rio+20 Second Intersessional Meeting last month in New York.{1} 


The overall objective of Rio+20 according to UNCSD is "to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address new and emerging challenges."{2}

Outlining the points to be negotiated by the parties in June, the 19-page draft outcome document was crafted from a compilation document of some 6,000 pages, a process managed by Ambassador Kim's bureau.

The zero draft stresses the commitment of the member states to the concept of sustainable development, reaffirms the principles of past action plans, emphasizes the flexibility required to tailor solutions for the different needs of the various nations and proposes a roadmap that includes progress indicators between 2012-2015, implementation between 2015-2030 and a final assessment in 2030.{3}

The document also identifies a number of key themes: food security; water; energy; cities; green jobs and social inclusion; oceans, seas and small island developing states (SIDS); natural disasters; climate change; forests and biodiversity; land degradation and desertification; mountains; chemicals and waste; sustainable consumption and production; education; and gender equality.{4} 


But though the importance of this summit is very high, the expectations are not.

"Many close to the process have lamented the fact that the timing of Rio+20—amid growing anxiety due to the state of the global economy, growth and jobs topping the current agenda, and multilateralism on the wane—has meant that expectations are low and preparations have started off slowly," the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) said in a recent statement.{5}

But often the worst of times inspire the best in people. In a nod to the popular grassroots movements that took the world by storm in 2011 (Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street), Ambassador Kim called for a more inclusive democratic debate inspired by leadership and cooperation.

"We have to remember that 20 years ago in Rio, we were able to succeed mainly because Agenda 21 became a people's agenda," he said. "Therefore, we need strong political leadership and multilateral efforts to enhance global public awareness of the Rio agendas."{6}{7} 


Ambassador Kim also prepared delegates to come ready to compromise and promoted a modular strategic approach.

"Ironically, solutions will only be found if we move away from our stated positions," he said.

"We all know that different countries have different circumstances and concerns. Rio+20 should recognize this and not impose a tight, one-size-fits-all jacket on everyone. It can deliver a flexible and broad menu of options available for countries to choose from, according to their national priorities. Only this way may we ensure the broadest possible buy-in."{8}

Indeed, member states will have to bend a little to get any substantive and actional document at the end of the summit. But that is a tall order. The United States is wary of international accords, like Kyoto, that may limit its ability to continue to pollute the planet. France is unwilling to give up nuclear energy, even as its neighbors Germany and Switzerland committed to do so. Canada continues to promote dirty tar sands, which have a bigger carbon footprint that any other commercial oil production in the world.{9}{10}{11}{12} 


The UNCSD Zero Draft has a rather poetic title: "The Future We Want." It's also a realistic approach, because there's no guarantee that the better future that the document describes is the future that we’ll get.

But a bit more poetry certainly couldn't hurt international climate talks. Maybe being in Rio can help in that regard.

In the early 19th century, a somber type of music emerged in Portugal called "fado." Meaning "destiny" or "fate" in Portuguese, fado quickly spread to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, where it was influenced by Afro-Brazilian slave songs. Featuring a single singer accompanied by a guitar, the sad songs of fado are mostly about love, loss and mourning, and focus primarily on the life of the poor.

It's a fitting musical backdrop for the Rio+20 summit: If the world's leaders fail to agree on how to move society to a more sustainable future, there will be a lot that will be lost, a lot to mourn and a lot more poverty to lament.



1. Kim, Sook. Opening Remarks of Co-Chair of the Bureau of the Preparatory Process for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the UN, December 15, 2011.

2. United Nations. "Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development - About." February 26, 2011.

3. United Nations. "The Future We Want." Zero draft of the outcome document for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. January 2012.

4. Ibid.

5. International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. "Rio+20 Draft Outcome Document Released." January 11, 2012.

6. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, also known as "Agenda 21," was adopted at UNCED in June 1992.

7. Ibid., 1.

8. Ibid.

9. Associated Press. "Sarkozy vows no retreat from nuclear power." November 25, 2011.

10. Dempsey, Judy and Jack Ewing. "Germany, in Reversal, Will Close Nuclear Plants by 2022." New York Times, May 30, 2011.

11. Kanter, James. "Switzerland Decides on Nuclear Phase-Out." New York Times, May 25, 2011.

12. Greenpeace. "Dirty Oil: How the Tar Sands Are Fueling the Global Climate Crisis." September, 2009.

image: Cristo Redentor statue on top of Corcovado, a mountain towering over Rio de Janeiro, where the United Nations will host the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012. (credit: Klaus with K, Wikimedia Commons)