Rio+20’s unsexy governance agenda

Inclusive Economy27 Oct 2011Evert-jan Quak

The latest Policy Brief of the Earth System Governance Project – a ten years research initiative, which is sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and the United Nations University – is an outcry for radical political change and action for a just and sustainable development.

The recommendations of this Policy Brief are very welcome to reverse current trends – the expectations for a comprehensive and influential conclusion of next year’s Rio+20 Summit are shrinking by every day – and get things back on track ahead of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

Although governance reform is officially on the agenda in Rio it has been overshadowed completely by the sexy green economy mantra. However, an effective green economy including a fast shift towards a green economic model needs (how unsexy it probably sounds) radical governance changes on all levels at least to guarantee that the groups who will not benefit of this change are helped.

Tipping point

And we have to hurry. We are soon reaching a critical tipping point. But the economic and political systems still lack the ability to change course rapidly, unfortunately. This can be showed with the results of environmental treaties. Global environmental protection has featured high on the international political agenda since the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, however, more than 900 environmental treaties later ‘human-induced environmental degradation is reaching unprecedented levels’, is written in the brief.

Question is how we can facilitate such a fundamental transformation in governance to guarantee a just and sustainable development in the near future. The answer of the Earth Systems Governance Project comes with ten policy recommendations with the aim to reorient and restructure our national and international institutions and governance mechanisms. ‘Incrementalism will not suffice to bring about societal change at the level required’, the scientists involved warn.

Qualified Majority

Some of their recommendations focus on the challenge to change existing governance structures, like the way present and future treaties must rely more on systems of qualified majority voting in specified areas. Or that the UNEP should be upgraded to a specialized UN agency along the lines of the World Health Organization or the International Labour Organization. The scientists recommend as well for better integrate sustainable development policies (social, economic, environmental pillars) within the UN system.

Though, other recommendations are more fundamental. Take for example the way conflicts among multilateral agreements should be managed. The Earth System Governance Project states that multilateral systems and agreements like global trade and investment regimes should allow for discriminating between products on the basis of production processes to make just and sustainable products more competitive and hence stimulate green innovations.

But I’m not sure if developing countries will agree in the end with such a drastic change as they fear new protectionism in the West against their products that could hamper their economic prospects for the next decades.

National level

The focus isn’t solely on international governance as the current national political and governance systems do not adopt sufficient measures to change the economy sustainably. As a consequence national policies are responsible for the setback on the multilateral level. So, national governance systems have to be strengthened. Success lies in a package of different policy instruments, and evaluating the effectiveness of these in their own terms as well as in relation to alternative options, according the Policy brief.

More and more such policy instruments have been found in public-private governance networks and partnerships. Although these non-state actors are promoted by national governments more and more, ‘there is still a strong need for effective and decisive governmental action’ the scientists write. Research and monitoring on the effectiveness of these new non-state instruments are very much needed, as some of the first evaluations suggests. And that is in line with another recommendation. Strengthen accountability and legitimacy for accessible, comprehensible and comparable data about government and corporate sustainability performance.


Finally equity concerns must be at the heart of the institutional framework for sustainable development, as also Sir Richard Jolly has addressed in his blog post for The Broker. ‘Financial transfers from richer to poorer countries are inevitable, either through direct support payments for mitigation and adaptation programmes or through international market mechanisms, for example global emissions markets.’

Will all these recommendations be enough for a real change? Although the recommendations are all necessary the political will for such a change is doubtful. The financial, economic, and food crisis couldn’t trigger our political elites to move away from the existing economic and governance systems, so why should a dull international conference on sustainable development, how important it may be, wake them up? Unless citizens all around the world oblige their governments in a final public outcry that they only can come back from the Rio summit with a package of well negotiated and designed tools and instruments that finally can implement new and old promises and agreements on sustainability.

The Rio+20 Conference offers both an opportunity and a crucial test as to whether such conferences can bring about substantial and urgently needed change in the current institutional framework for sustainable development, is the conclusion in the Policy Brief. At the moment only massive public unrest can wake up politicians to act towards a real green economy, which put humanity first and not business interests. Therefore the attempt of the Earth System Governance Project to highlight such an unsexy subject ahead to Rio+20 must be applauded.