Were the Side Events at Rio+20 Actually the Main Event?

One could easily have left the Rio+20 conference last month feeling pretty pessimistic. After all, the final text that was agreed to by the national delegations was at best a very small step forward, and at worst just a hodgepodge of language from past agreements thrown together so that conference organizers could have something to show for the massive amounts of time, money and energy (quite literally) that was put into the conference. The carbon expenditure alone (flying more than 40,000 people around the globe) demanded such accounting. Yet, despite the meager outcome of the “official” negotiations, optimists in need of a reason to believe could look to the side events for inspiration.

I attended two such side events that seemed to promise much more short-term progress than the diplomatic process could hope to deliver. The first, a joint side event hosted by the World Bank and the UK, announced a new initiative they have called the 50/50 program. The program aims to unite at least 50 countries and 50 private sector entities into a partnership to promote and develop a sophisticated system of natural capital accounting (NCA). The event was extremely well-attended, packing the room well beyond intended seating capacity. A very significant media presence was present as well. Rachel Kyte, a 2002 graduate of the GMAP program at the Fletcher School, and current Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, presided over the event, which included heads of state from Costa Rica, Norway, and Gabon, as well as representatives from private sector firms such as Unilever, Dow and Puma. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the UK gave opening remarks, and was briefly interrupted by a protester wearing a mask of his likeness, and claiming that the UK and the World Bank were conspiring to sell the world’s ecological assets through the initiative. To the contrary, Ms. Kyte and speakers such as Prime Minister Stoltenberg of Norway claimed that NCA is the only way to hold the private sector truly accountable for the natural resources they consume or compromise. Moreover, NCA aims to correctly value the wealth held by countries who are undervalued by traditional metrics such as GDP, which do not account for eco-system services and other forms of natural capital. Thus far, the partnership has already exceeded its initial goal, having signed up 57 countries and 86 private companies for the initiative. According to Ms. Kyte, the time is right for such action, as “there is now overwhelming support for implementation across the world.” If she is right, this partnership could prove to be among the most significant developments to com out of Rio+20.

The second event was the launch of the U.S. Water Partnership, a consortium of government, private sector, academic and NGO partners committed to mobilizing expertise, resources and ingenuity to address global water challenges, with a special focus on developing countries where needs are greatest. Tuft’s own TIE has joined the partnership, which aims to improve access and quality of service for water, sanitation and hygiene, increase efficiency and productivity of water use, and improve governance through stronger public and private institutions, policies and processes. The launch not only brought together expert speakers to discuss the urgent issues that the partnership was created to overcome, but also witnessed significant financial commitments from two of the founding partners, Coca Cola and World Vision. Coca Cola committed more than $3M to water stewardship programs in several African countries, while World Vision committed more than $400M to a wide array of programs ranging from improved sanitation to access to safe drinking water. These two events displayed the power behind multi-sector partnerships, a power that traditional diplomacy struggles to harness. In time, side events such as these  may well prove to be more influential than the supposed  main event (the state-level negotiations) at environmental conferences like Rio+20.

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