Science - June 7, 2012

Rio + 20 back to square one

Twenty years of talking about sustainable development at top international conferences has not delivered much, says Wageningen political scientist Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen. The problem is a lack of monitoring and communication. Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen was at the Rio conference 20 years ago and the Johannesburg one 10 years ago. And she will soon be leaving for Rio +20.

'Twenty years ago there was plenty of hope; the Berlin war had quite recently come down. Although some NGOs called the conference a failure, some clear goals were formulated on combatting climate change and preserving biodiversity. There were also attempts to convert ambitions into local policy. But when they went home the political leaders went back to focusing on the short term, whereas climate change and biodiversity definitely call for long-term efforts.
International norms only work if people are convinced of them - there is no police force or budget controller to enforce compliance. What is more, a top-down approach like that is not enough on its own; success also depends on local initiative and creativity. I think this is where it went wrong in recent years. There was no communication mechanism that linked global agreements to local action.
Conversely, we also lack good ways of linking up local priorities and activities with the global forums. Reports are not appropriate for these sorts of global meetings; progress is not monitored and there are no guidelines for doing so. When no research is done on how international agreements are honoured, you get the familiar pattern of countries accusing each other of not keeping to agreements. You don't see any progress either, because the agreements are not kept to. So at Rio +20 there is going to be a discussion on the green economy, the economy that is at the heart of sustainable development. Critics call this greenwashing. That way you end up back at square one, failing to link agreements with implementation through monitoring.'

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