Rio+20, The Green Economy and Re-orienting Sustainable Development

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Abstract: This article looks at the role played by the green economy approach to sustainable development in the run-up to and aftermath of the UNCSD 2012 (the Rio+20 Earth Summit). It examines the inherent tensions that have become increasingly apparent within the sustainable development paradigm and considers the impact of the green economy approach as espoused in the Rio+20 process on sustainability. The positions adopted by major actors (comprising institutions, states and major groups) towards the green economy in the Rio+20 process and its outcome document The Future We Want are discussed. The article reflects on the particular manifestation of the perennial North/South tensions that permeate international environmental law and governance that have been prompted by the green economy debate. It also considers new fractures in the South grouping prompted by the increasing influence calls for a less materialistic, more holistic basis for human/ environment relations. Thus, contrary to the economics-dominated agenda espoused in the Rio+20 process, the Mother Earth Rights/Pachamama approach that is being promoted by a number of South American states emerged (albeit as a minor strand) in the outcome document. The article contemplates both the disappointment of the Rio+20 process and outcome and the seeds for a more creative future that may have been sown in them.

INTRODUCTION

This article considers the implications of the 'green economy' for sustainable development as envisaged in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) 20123 (the Rio+20 Conference) and in its aftermath. As is usually the case, the preparations for the summit were characterised by the vigorous promotion of radical reform. The widely divergent priorities for agenda setting that emerged, however, revealed the depth of controversy that sustainability still breeds 20 years on from the first Earth Summit. They ranged from calls for stronger environmental law credentials for sustainability4 to diametrically opposed views, such as those expressed by Andre Correa do Lago, the chief negotiator for Brazil who commented that the:

These perspectives represent a more generalised and multifarious dissatisfaction with the whole concept of sustainable development and its achievements to date. Views such as those of Correa do Lago even gave rise to the perceived danger that Rio+20 would dismantle the whole notion of sustainability.6 If there was agreement on little else, it was generally accepted that sustainable development required, at the very least, revitalisation. What would drive the necessary change? How would the requisite level of support for this be achieved given the contentious nature of the very concept of sustainability?

In the event, the UN selected the institutional framework for sustainable development and the 'green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication' (to give it its full title) as the twin themes7 of the Rio+20 conference. Discussion here will focus primarily on the latter. Although the 'green economy* concept had been developing for some time (its modern precursors appeared in the 1970s,8 and its roots arguably going back much further), it had only risen to prominence in academic circles in the first decade of the 21st century.9 The concept then gained considerable traction in policy circles in the run-up to Rio+20, which finally brought it centre stage in world affairs.

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