How Wales played at Rio+20

Peter Davies reports on a week of rubbing shoulders with the good and the great in green global politics

I had two key objectives from attending the Rio+20 summit last week – to get ideas to inform the Sustainable Development Bill and to accelerate the green economy. On the first we must make sure that we do not close down options too early and be prepared to consider ideas not currently included in the Sustainable Development Bill proposals paper.

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The Climate Group’s Clean Revolution initiative could provide the ideal focus for a campaign to accelerate the green economy through investment in renewable energy, clean technology and infrastructure. This will be dependent on the views of business partners, but I know that the CBI Wales are keen to consider opportunities. The Climate Group have committed their support to developing a Clean Revolution campaign in Wales so let’s see if we can get something in place before the end of the year.

My objectives obviously link to those of Welsh Government but Rio+20 also represented a key landmark in Welsh Government’s work with partners in regional and sub national governments through the Network of Regional Governments for Sustainable Development. For the first time the role of this tier of government was formally recognised in the final UN document, proving the basis for a collective voice and action in delivering the The Future We Want. Of course, the timing was perfect for the Welsh Government as its Sustainable Development Bill generated significant profile for Wales and provided a focal point for the raft of Ministerial bilateral meetings.

The UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg encouraged the team to take away a positive ‘glass half full’ message from the summit, saying that the final text was never going to be as world changing as negotiations with 190 countries with differing perspectives, suspicions and priorities collaborated to find a consensus – dilution and compromise was inevitable. However he set out reasons to be cheerful, with key points from the agreement from the UK perspective being:

  • Agreement to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The United Nations General Assembly will appoint a group of representatives from 30 countries by September to develop the goals, with the aim for these goals to focus on food, water and energy.
  • Recognition of the importance of the green economy as a way to help nations to grow sustainably, and to help eradicate poverty.
  • A call from all nations at Rio+20 for businesses to adopt ways of reporting on their sustainability performance, as championed by the UK delegation and businesses such as Aviva.
  • Recognition by all nations at Rio+20 of the importance of including the value of natural capital and social wellbeing into decision making will be given real force by having a UN commission undertake the work on GDP plus.

In my view the real positive message of Rio came through in a consultation on our planned Sustainable Development Bill, hosted by Welsh Environment Minister John Griffiths and attended by a range of leading international NGOs. The potential of Rio +20 was encapsulated in this session. It was being replicated around the conference venues as nations, states, companies and NGOs were combining to drive forward programmes of action, as a coalition of the willing –  leading players working to make the words of the text into practical realities. As Niall Dunne Global Sustainability Officer for BT put it – progress is made through grass roots action and leaders who can forge strong partnerships.

The consultation meeting was held in the UK offices and perhaps the most telling comment was that the UK Coalition Government position does not recognise the different approaches being taken in the devolved administrations. There is a long way to go in this regard as evidenced by the fact that the presence of neither the Scottish nor Welsh Minister was recognised by the Ambassador or Nick Clegg in their welcome speeches at the earlier GB team meeting.

Neither should we kid ourselves about Wales’ influence in these kind of negotiations. We are a learner with the ambition to be a leader – not the leading global force our rhetoric sometimes suggests! We can build the partnerships with other states and regions, particularly in Europe, to accelerate change, while we must also continue to build our contribution to international development through Wales for Africa.

So what of the outcomes of the whole Rio+20 process? Much has already been written on the subject but history will prove whether the text of the agreement signed at the event was an important milestone in the journey. This will depend on whether political leadership can give life to concepts which are outlined without any detailed, measurable commitments in the “Future We Want”. We all have a role to play in this collective challenge.  Personally I left feeling overwhelmed but hugely encouraged by the range, scale and quality of collective actions being taken by governments, business and NGOs that featured in venues across the city.

I returned from Rio with a lot of new ideas and contacts, and important relationships have been reinforced with colleagues like Sandor Fulop the Hungarian Commissioner for Sustainable Futures – we agreed to meet in 2 years time in Rio when Wales play Hungary in the World Cup!

Peter Davies is Welsh Commissioner for Sustainable Futures and a trustee of the IWA.

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