Will Rio+20 Set Us on a Path to Sustainable Development?: Interview with Harvard Professor William Clark (By Rahul Daswani)

20 years after the original Rio summit began, how far along are we on a path towards sustainable development? While there has been some movement to back up rhetoric, much more still needs to be done – especially in the areas of concrete agreements, implementation and defining further knowledge required going forward. Is Rio+20 the place where substantial progress takes place? Let us take a closer look at the history of the summit to find out.

We have come some way from 1992: Two decades ago, it was a struggle to get sustainability on the global agenda. Now, there is no doubt that it is a key concern. The types of issues, governance discussion and our knowledge needs have all evolved over the last 20 years. Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, William Clark, elaborated on these differences in a talk celebrating Earth Day last month:

  • Issues: Rather than just focusing on environmental agreements (about the ozone, climate, biodiversity and forests), we are now focusing on development agreements. Prof Clark elaborated, “The current hot topics: jobs, energy food, water, cities and disasters are indications of how humans are now at the center of discussions”.
  • Governance: Rather than a top down spirit of governance in the past, where the inclusion of civil society often came belatedly, we now have to focus on polycentric governance, and entrepreneurial green growth through public private partnerships. “Most of the action happens at the regional level, but we what we need to figure out is the global level tasks vs what tasks can be sorted out at the regional and national levels,” Prof Clark explained.
  • Knowledge: In the past, we focused on understanding more about the science of how things worked, and the impacts changes in the environment might have on us, through Earth system sciences, and global monitoring technologies. Now, we need to build on this baseline by pushing the edge on sustainability science, and develop decision support systems, especially for policymakers. “This will help states to compute the different ways they can achieve our sustainability goals,” Prof Clark reinforced.

UN Photo/Mark Garten

While our views on these dimensions have evolved due to our experience, we should also be mindful of the different levels of scale that we can operate on. In this field, global and even regional agreements have been very difficult to come by of late. But smaller partnerships, for example the bilateral $1 billion partnership on forests between Norway and Indonesia signed in 2010, can lead the way. Individual organizations can pave the way forward as well. Walmart has been recognized with numerous awards for its sustainability efforts, including publishing an annual Global Responsibility Report which highlights how its Sustainable Value Networks (SVNs) have helped integrate sustainable practices into all parts of their business.

Another debate that is often had is whether we should consider having fewer senior people from key institutions at Rio+20 a failure. While it is sometimes helpful to have high profile politicians around, an increased spotlight is not necessarily helpful.  I spoke with Professor Clark after his Earth Day talk, and he agreed with this sentiment: “We only have to look as far back as the climate change-centered Conference of Parties 15 in Copenhagen in 2010, which was widely expected to conclude with a follow up to the Kyoto Protocol but did not even come close. Especially in the case of Rio+20, where there are multiple fronts to push forward on rather than being restricted to one particular issue, the lower profile can be helpful. Some realistic targets and commitments can be agreed upon, and collaboration at the working level is more likely since less political positioning and maneuvering is necessary.”

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Overall, in order to have a fruitful Rio+20 summit, we must create an environment where organizations are comfortable sharing their successes and failures, so that others may learn and develop more informed plans going forward. Let us also keep in mind that no initiative is too small to appreciate – after all, much of our world has been shaped by persistent individuals who were unafraid to pursue seemingly unrealistic goals.

Rahul Daswani is a class of 2013 Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. He spent the last 2 years working in climate change as a consultant for the governments of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. This summer he is working in Ethiopia, on a project focused on scaling up farmer cooperatives.


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