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Editor's Note: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants 

Issue #186 | 2 April 2012

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By: Lynn Wagner, Ph.D., Group Director, SDG Knowledge, IISD <>

…we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size...

In 1159, John of Salisbury is believed to have attributed this statement to Bernard of Chartres. The last few weeks have brought many opportunities to reflect on the past 20 years of sustainable development policy, and these reflections have brought this quote to mind several times. These opportunities include the launch of The Roads from Rio: Lessons Learned from Twenty Years of Multilateral Environmental Negotiations (Resources for the Future Press/Routledge, 2012), a book authored by writers for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, and the preparations for the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20).

Our coverage of the March 2012 Rio+20 informal meetings highlighted a number of ways in which Rio+20 will take place in a very different world from that in which its namesake, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or Rio Earth Summit), took place in 1992. For example, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary report notes that the sustainable development policy agenda is much more crowded now. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit, and now commands a large amount of attention, and time, on the sustainable development agenda. Likewise, the agreement resulting in the creation of the World Trade Organization was completed after the 1992 Rio event, also having a far-reaching influence on the sustainable development landscape. The international landscape has changed a great deal as well, although, like in 1992, international relations again appear in flux. In 1992, the communist bloc of countries was going through major political and economic changes. In 2012, emerging countries and blocs of countries are introducing questions about the existing power alliances, while some governing regimes are undergoing major changes.

During the March 2012 informal meetings in New York, reflections in the corridors also focused on how technology has changed the nature of negotiations in the past 20 years, particularly through the use of an overhead projection screen for the draft text. In 1992, opening statements followed by handwritten submissions that the chair or secretariat might have combined into a “single negotiating text” for further discussion, were called a “first reading.” In 2012, negotiators offered opening statements on the zero draft in January, and then submitted comments, electronically viewed them on screen, responded to other groups' proposals and submitted additional proposals, all as part of the “first reading.” Some suggested that the activities during the March session would have been the equivalent of a second reading in the “old” days, taking place in smaller groups where delegates might have had more interaction. The new process resulted in approximately 200 pages of proposals and amendments, presenting a daunting task for the next stage of negotiations But some are holding out hope that, given that the new system allows delegations to clearly see what their counterparts have proposed, all delegations will come to the next round of negotiations with instructions for how to respond to, and perhaps even accommodate, the preferences of other delegations.

Wordsmithing and editing skills will be at a premium at the next meeting, not to mention the hopes that smaller group chairs and leaders will be able to guide this process to a close. And in the process, some of these individuals will become the giants from whose shoulders the next generation will base their view of the sustainable development policy landscape.