The Switch Special Rio+20 Issue The Switch Special Rio+20 Issue


The Switch is a monthly newsletter distributed by the Northern Alliance for Sustainability (ANPED) on initiatives that are making the switch to a sustainable society. The Switch covers various campaigns, new book releases, academic papers, policy processes and more. It takes a holistic and progressive approach to the sustainability debate and does not shy away from addressing controversial topics. The Switch also keeps you updated on upcoming conferences and events. The Switch is open for your news, events and articles. For this or for for any other comments, don’t hesitate to contact the editor of The Switch, Nick Meynen, nick[at]


ANPED is Organising Partner for the NGOs in the Rio+20 conference. In this Switch Special Rio+20 Issue, 5 key guest authors share their views on key proposals and concepts.


While the Rio+20 conference changed its dates to 20-22 June 2012, what is really needed is a change in the current debates on green economy and governance. Some of the 646 submissions from Major Groups to Member States on what they expect from Rio+20 sound like business as usual, while others are out-of-the-box. We asked some key authors to comment on some promising and bold proposals or to give their view on some key principles that should guide the debates in Rio.


Jeremy Wates will reflect on the proposal to make a global convention on environmental democracy in Rio. Mohan Munasignhe will then explain the bold idea to agree on a set of Millenium Consumption Goals. Joachim Spangenberg compares the talk on green economy with the original idea on the limits to growth. Emmanuel Prinet looks at the emerging post-growth world and Jan-Gustav Strandenaes will frame the idea to make a Council for Sustainable Development.



A global treaty on environmental democracy?


International declarations are peppered with references to the importance of civil society involvement in official decision-making processes. Probably the most famous of these is Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which starts with the words ‘Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens …’.


However, despite its global endorsement almost two decades ago, the implementation of Principle 10 around the world has been uneven to say the least. The most significant progress at the regional level has come from the adoption of the Aarhus Convention in 1998 under the auspices of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Thirteen years later, the Convention has 45 Parties representing most of the States of Europe and Central Asia. Its binding character has prompted governments from throughout the region to strengthen their laws and practices in this field. While implementation of the Convention is far from perfect, a participatory compliance mechanism goes some way towards ensuring that problems are brought to light and addressed. The Convention is open to accession by any UN Member State, though so far none from outside the UNECE region have acceded.


Another significant development was the adoption of UNEP guidelines on Principle 10 in Bali in February 2010. Like Principle 10 itself, the guidelines are non-binding but they go into more detail and have global scope, having been developed in a process that was open to all UN Member States.


Against this background, how can the Rio+20 Conference help to promote environmental democracy globally?


Brazil has provided one answer to that question with its call for the Conference to launch negotiations towards a global convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters. This echoes similar proposals not only from the NGO community but also from institutions such as the European Parliament. However, the fact that the proposal now comes from the host country gives a new impetus to the idea.


The appeal of a global treaty is that it would potentially engage all countries, including those which are unlikely to ever accede to Aarhus or be involved in regional instruments similar to Aarhus, should such be developed. As a matter of principle, the rights enjoyed under the Aarhus Convention should not be restricted to one particular region but should be enjoyed by people throughout the world.


There are some risks in a global treaty too, the most obvious being that the resulting text might be rather weak due to the lowest common denominator effect. But provided the text only establishes minimum standards (like Aarhus), this risk does not need to lead to any weakening of existing standards. Furthermore, provided that civil society is fully and actively involved in the negotiation process (and this should be a pre-condition for developing a global treaty on civil society participation rights), there is a good prospect of achieving a result which leads to significant improvements in a large number of countries. Finally, judging from the Aarhus experience, the negotiating process itself could have spin-off benefits, pushing the issue of procedural environmental rights higher up political agendas, prompting countries to already improve their legal frameworks without awaiting the final outcome of the negotiations and establishing new dialogues between governments and civil society.


Hopefully Brazil’s call for a global treaty on Principle 10 will be supported not only by the NGO community but also by a critical mass of governments so that it emerges as a concrete outcome of the Summit.


Jeremy Wates

Secretary General, European Environmental Bureau (EEB)



Why the world urgently needs Millennium Consumption Goals (MCGs)


The Millennium Consumption Goals (MCGs) idea was proposed in January 2011 in New York, for the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June 2012. MCGs provide targets to motivate the rich worldwide, to consume and produce more sustainably, thereby improving overall well being, reducing environmental harm, freeing up resources to alleviate poverty, and ensuring intra- and inter-generational equity. MCGs for the affluent would complement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the poor.


Addressing underconsumption of the poor, the first MCG ensures that basic human needs are met worldwide. Next, addressing overconsumption of the rich, several resource-related MCGs would target: GHG emissions; energy use; water use; land use and biomass; ores and industrial minerals; construction materials; and polluting discharges. Additional MCGs might cover: food security and agriculture; health, diet and obesity; livelihoods and lifestyles; economic-financial-trade systems; and military expenditures


We need MCGs urgently, because unsustainable consumption and production have caused multiple problems threatening humanity’s future – like poverty, resource scarcities, hunger, conflict and climate change. Global production already exceeds the environmental carrying capacity of planet earth by 50%. The world’s 1.4 billion richest people consume over 80% of this output – 60 times more than the poorest 1.4 billion. Meanwhile, MDGs seek to raise consumption levels of over 2 billion poor. Clearly, the consumption of the rich is both unsustainable and “crowding out” the poor. The MCGs will help to avoid a global resource crisis, by persuading the affluent to contribute to the solution, instead of viewing them as a problem.


To move this idea forward, the Millennium Consumption Goals Initiative (MCGI) was launched at the UN by a broad stakeholder network. It is action-oriented, inclusive, multi-level, pluralistic and trans-national.


MCGs provide a set of benchmarks, supported by a combination of voluntary actions by rich consumers, and enabling government policies promoting sustainable consumption and production. A top down effort is moving the MCGs forward on the Rio+20 agenda — establishing a mandate, benchmarks, and an implementation framework. While international discussions proceed, many prefer to act NOW. This bottom-up approach involves pioneering individuals, communities, organisations, firms, cities, regions and nations, who are already declaring their own voluntary MCGs and implementing them. For example, the biochemical giant Novozymes states: “The Novozymes target is a voluntary Millennium Consumption Goal (MCG) that supports the recently launched global Millennium Consumption Goals Initiative (MCGI).”


MCGs have strategic advantages. First, they would apply worldwide, cutting across nationalistic and regional self-interest. Second, small reductions in rich peoples’ material consumption can improve their well-being (eg. through healthier lifestyles and diets), while lowering environmental harm and freeing up resources to alleviate poverty. Third, MCGs can be implemented using an inclusive, multilevel strategy, which combines both bottom up and top down approaches. Fourth, MCGs have the potential for quicker results, by galvanizing civil society and business to ‘act now’. This could quickly shift the behavior of affluent households and businesses, without relying only on long-term measures. Furthermore, rich individuals and communities could act effectively in their own enlightened self-interest, since they are better educated, have more influence and command more resources. Fifth, MCG-MDG twinning is possible – eg, by linking MCGs in rich communities with MDGs in poor communities. Sixth and finally, MCGs could mobilize, empower and link sustainable consumers and producers (including associated global value/supply chains). The same advertising that now promotes over-consumption could be used to encourage more sustainable consumption. Values and habits could be changed society-wide to favor more sustainable behavior (like the gradual change in attitudes towards smoking). MCGs would “empower the person to define meaningful consumption rather than permitting meaningless consumption to define the person.”


The MCGs are based on a practical framework for making development more sustainable called ‘Sustainomics’, and designed to supplement ongoing initiatives like sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and green economy (GE). By acting together on the MCGs at Rio+20, we will make the planet a safer and better place for our children and grandchildren.


Mohan Munasinghe

Millenium Consumption Goals Initiative (MCGI)




A Green Economy is not enough!


In 1987 the World Commission for Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) defined Sustainable Development as (WCED 1987, p.43):


“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • 1. The concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and
  • 2. The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”


All too often, only the first part of the definition is quoted and its lack of precision bemoaned, just to come up with “complementary” explanations based on neoclassical economics and neoliberal politics. Such interpretations, in particular the call for more or green growth, and for more market regulations are in clear contradiction to the second part of the definition (which is why only the first part is quoted to begin with).


Sustainable development is meant to give (back) the economy a purpose, serving human needs. These needs, however, and in particular the needs of the global poor are not identical with the greed of capital owners and shareholders – free market shareholder value capitalism cannot be sustainable.


Sustainable development is a development within the limits of our environmental space. These limits can be extended by social and technological development (the former including redistribution mechanisms), but cannot be replaced to give way for unlimited growth – but this is exactly what Green Growth (and essentially also the UNEP Green Economy) are calling for. Limits to growth, or resource capping are not part of these policy concepts. They are not sustainable.


The Brundtland report’s praise for economic growth has to be understood in this framing: economic growth is justified and considered necessary as far as it is instrumental to reach both the objectives. The OECD Green Growth concept fails on both accounts, and the UNEP Green Economy concept, while paying lip service to the needs of the poor is concrete only as far as the environment is concerned. For this end, a further commodification of nature and a regulation by market instruments is considered the most promising way forwards, making nature an exchangeable good regardless of local human needs and natural carrying capacities, let alone the dignity of nature itself.


As UNDESA‘s World Economic and Social Survey 2011 points out, technological innovation is indispensible, but not enough to achieve the transition to a sustainable economy: it must be combined with social innovation and strong governments dedicated not to serve markets, but give them a direction and complement them to overcome their principal lack of direction and social cohesion.


Consequently, greening the business world, although overdue for at least 35 years, is a welcome step, but a far cry from leading to a sustainable economy, let alone a sustainable society.


Joachim H. Spangenberg,

Chair, economic & finance policy working group, BUND/FoE Germany



Limits to growth


As countries prepare for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD 2012), virtually every one of them is committed to “growth”. With many of them facing unfolding sovereign debt crises, a growing economy is seen as the necessary prerequisite to create jobs and raise income in order to reduce and eliminate budget deficits, not to mention service debts at some point down the road. Low-income countries are also seeking growth to pull their populations out of poverty and invest in desperately-needed infrastructure.


But is it not time to ask whether the medicine is killing the patient? Humanity currently faces a bleak future, from ecological overshoot and climate change to growing social injustices such as widening income disparities. An increasing number of voices are arguing that these are the symptoms of decades of growth-above-all-else policies coupled with a lack of wealth and resource redistribution, and that things will only get worse if growth remains the overarching goal of national and international agendas.


So, what does the path forward to a happy, sustainable world look like in a post-growth world? The starting point is collaboration and reciprocity, since collective problems require collective solutions. UNCSD 2012 is the historical opportunity to finally reach a turning point and draw up the “great transition” blueprints that are founded on attractive sustainable futures jointly conceived. The global initiative “The Future We Want” aims to catalyze visions of a positive future in the lead-up to Rio+20, and it can be harnessed to its full potential by UN-member States in drawing out the outcomes of the Conference.


Many groups around the world are already trying to work out the solutions, from rethinking the whole economic system to focusing on concrete measures and actions. Networks such as the Great Transition Initiative, the New Economy Network and the New Economics Institute are trying to take a holistic lens to the economy, as do authors such as Juliet Schor in Plenitude and Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth, who talk, for example, about the merits of working less. Exciting patterns and concepts to meet the world’s great challenges are emerging, such as industrial ecology, biomimicry, and new business models such as social enterprises and businesses that subordinate profits to social and environmental goals. We are seeing game-changing initiatives that involve sharing, kindness and trust, from collaborative consumption that includes tool-lending libraries to the Pay It Forward movement, where a stranger in need can enjoy for free a prepaid meal in a restaurant.


The will is there and people are ready! Governments must now show leadership and act in the collective interest by supporting, scaling up and drawing on the innumerable projects and ideas that are springing up everywhere as answers to the failings of old, stale and ineffective growth strategies. There is no better time to do this than at the 2012 Rio Earth Summit.


Emmanuel Prinet

Policy Director at One Earth Initiative Society, Canada




A Council on Sustainable Development


The organisational chart of the UN may look differently after the Rio+20 conference is over. What few thought possible a year ago, now seems destined for success – the UN may be fitted with a new council, this time a council on sustainable development.


If sustainable development is going to survive as a concept with operational mechanisms and as policy directing our future decisions, sustainable development needs to be given more political authority, and be given an executive body to work from at the UN. Retaining the Commission for Sustainable Development as a standing committee under ECOSOC is no longer viable. In the UN, a council is the highest political authority, balancing almost next to the General Assembly. Back in 1945, the UN was founded with four councils: The Trusteeship Council, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the International Court at the Hague and finally the most famous one – the Security Council. Establishing a new United Nations Council on Sustainable Development would be a momentous decision, and one that would signal to the world the critical urgency and the high priority given to the issue of sustainable development.


Several attempts have been made to upgrade the work the UN has been doing around sustainable development, but these attempts have always meant a re-opening of the UN Charter leading to renegotiating its content, and no UN member state has wanted that. What seemed an impossibility was given new life when the former Secretary General Kofi Annan managed to establish the Council on Human Rights in 2005.


Establishing the Human Rights Council as a subsidiary council of the UN GA is the precedent needed to establish a Council on Sustainable Development and using examples from the development of the Human Rights Council to guide the development of a Council on Sustainable Development is what may overcome formal difficulties at the UN.


Political realities change over time and so do institutions. History shows that the two do not always coincide. Discrepancies between the two can lead to tragic setbacks. If the world at Rio next year does not act forcefully and positively, the work of the UN on sustainable development might relegate into oblivion. Creating a new UN body such as the Council on Sustainable Development will require and reflect political courage. A decision of this calibre would demonstrate the international political will and provide the institutional governance mechanisms to effectively support the three interdependent pillars of sustainable development – social equity, economic stability and environmental protection. Already the political community of the world has signalled that it is willing to establish a council. The government meeting held in Solo in Indonesia in July this year on governance reflects this in the chair’s report, and the Secretary General’s High Level Panel, has expressed the same idea in their deliberations.


A decision to strengthen sustainable development governance and environmental protection holds the potential for reinforcing the social, economic and environmental pillars, and thereby for improving the lives of millions of individuals throughout the world. Agreement on a decision to establish a Council on Sustainable Development would be a substantial way to start to fulfill that potential. Although no panacea for the complexities of global difficulties, it would provide a new mechanism for achieving further and greater progress. The governments will meet in mid December in New York at the second intersessional on Rio plus 20. We may then hear and see more on the fate of a council for sustainable development.


Jan-Gustav Strandenaes

Senior Policy adviser, ANPED and Stakeholder Forum


Joined documents