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Editor's Note: Ready, Set, Goio! 

Issue #190 | 11 June 2012

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

As all eyes turn to Rio for the coming two weeks, it is useful to look back at the process that has led to this point.

The history of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) stretches back to the UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), which took place in Stockholm, Sweden, from 5-16 June 1972. Maurice Strong presided over that Conference, which called for the establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and is credited with spurring the installation of environment ministries within many countries.

Twenty years later, the international community convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 3-14 June 1992, for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or Rio Earth Summit). With Maurice Strong serving again as Secretary-General, many of the outcome document drafts took shape through a deductive approach: a process involving expert meetings (with representative participation). These meetings developed the initial negotiating texts, which country delegates further developed and adopted. This meeting called for the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to follow up on implementation of Agenda 21, a document that was negotiated and adopted by the UN Member States at Rio. Delegates also called for the development of a number of new international agreements, addressing chemicals, straddling fish stocks and desertification, among others. The resulting UN Convention to Combat Desertification joined the two conventions that had been negotiated previously and were opened for signature at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change – as part of the UNCED legacy: the Rio Conventions. UNCED also pioneered the ever-lasting Rio Principles, and a non-legally binding set of so-called forest principles.

As we now head into Rio+20, the international community finds itself in very different circumstances. The Cold War, which overshadowed the Stockholm Conference, collapsed right before the Rio Earth Summit, bringing with it expectations that a new global partnership would be possible. However, as our Earth Negotiations Bulletin analyses from the second and third informal informal consultations suggest, the conditions for this meeting are markedly different than they were in 1972 and 1992. Recent economic crises, budget austerity and political election cycles have detracted from the importance that the international community has been able or willing to accord sustainable development issues. Delegates also find themselves looking at a different stage in the life cycle of international agreements and institutions – the international landscape now comprises a crowded negotiation calendar and, based on the experience of the past 40 years, many diplomats recognize the challenges and limits of multilateral action alongside the enduring belief in the need for international cooperation. The unmet expectations from the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, one of the most recent large sustainable development negotiation, have further reduced expectations for the ability of such conferences to spur international sustainable development action.

Also very different this time around is the process through which the Rio+20 draft outcome document has emerged. Compared with the deductive approach leading to the single negotiating text in the Rio Earth Summit process, the Rio+20 process has followed an inductive approach. From 6000 pages of submissions in November 2011 for the “compilation document,” to the initial 19-page “zero-draft” that eventually swelled to 206 pages by March, to the 80-page Co-Chair's suggested text tabled by the Preparatory Commission Co-Chairs on 22 May 2012, the process of arriving at a single negotiating text followed a very different approach. By the end of the third informal informal session, it had grown by six pages, with 70 paragraphs agreed ad referendum, and 259 paragraphs still bracketed.

It is against this backdrop that tens of thousands of participants are making their way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the next fortnight. With a single negotiating text finally in hand, many of the negotiating trade-offs have become more clear, although more than a week of long negotiations await delegates. Rio+20 may be remembered, however, for much more than the agreed text under consideration. As the long list of upcoming meetings in this issue of Linkages Update indicates, Rio+20 has stimulated a large number of other actors to organize events around the UNCSD themes. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit developed the categories of civil society “Major Groups” and has been credited with bringing a new era in these actors' participation within UN sustainable development decision making processes. The events and activities around Rio+20 are updating this vision, and we look forward to tracking its evolution during and after Rio+20.

Over the past 20 years, IISD has played a number of roles in documenting the processes leading into Rio+20. Our recently updated sustainable development timeline identifies key events, milestones and institutions that have helped shape the evolution of this process. Through our Earth Negotiations Bulletin coverage, we have reported on the negotiations leading to and during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and following up on that process directly (the Commission on Sustainable Development and the World Summit on Sustainable Development) as well as the many conventions and processes coming out of Rio (i.e. the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the conventions on persistent organic pollutants and prior informed consent, and the agreement on straddling fish stocks). And our Sustainable Development Policy & Practice knowledgebase keeps track of meetings, publications and other activities that are feeding into the Rio+20 event.

During Rio+20, our team is set to produce an impressive array of reports, including the Earth Negotiations Bulletin and coverage of side events, the Rio Conventions Pavilion, and Sustainable Development Dialogues, and the UN Environment Programme's World Congress on Justice, Governance, and Law for Environmental Sustainability. We hope to help you keep up with the events in Rio, and that you will refer to our reports as the latest global summit shapes the sustainable dialogue for years to come.