04 Nov 2013: Treaties May Not Be The
Key to Global Sustainable Development

Sweeping international treaties are no longer the key for charting the planet’s path to sustainable development. Instead, partnerships among governments, businesses, and NGOs hold the most promise for measurable progress on sustainability issues, including climate change. That was the message from leaders assembled at the “Rio+20 to 2015” conference last week at Yale University.

"There’s been an enormous focus on treaties," Hans Hoogeveen, director general of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, told the audience. "Lawyers and diplomats think they can rule the world, govern the world, from New York, Nairobi, or Rome. I think we have to learn that this not reality anymore."

Twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations convened the Rio+20 conference to secure sustainability commitments from private businesses, societal groups, and leaders at all levels of government. That 2012 conference garnered more than 1,400 such pledges — together valued at more than $640 billion, or around 1 percent of global GDP — but the challenge of putting those commitments into action and measuring their progress remains. The Rio+20 to 2015 conference, convened by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, sought to develop recommendations for producing timely, measurable results from those commitments.

"We need a different conversation, separate from the text [of the Rio+20 outcome document], that’s focused on action," said NRDC President Frances Beinecke.

In some cases, unconventional partnerships are yielding those actions. For example, the small island nation of Seychelles has partnered with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy to establish marine preserves near its coasts. Seychelles has committed to establishing 30 percent of its coastal zone as marine protected areas if it can secure a sizable "debt-for-nature" swap. In a debt-for-nature swap, a developed country agrees to write off part of a smaller nation’s debt if that nation enacts measures to protect its natural resources.

"You can spend a lot of time chasing after global money that doesn’t come," said H.E. Ronald Jumeau, an ambassador for the Republic of Seychelles. "But if you have the right partnership, money comes to you."

The ultimate test of Rio+20 will be in how many such partnerships are making progress toward their major commitments by 2015, when world leaders meet in Paris for international climate talks, and beyond.

"You have to bring in the stakeholders," said Hoogeveen. "Agreeing on something in New York doesn’t mean it’s going to happen on the ground."

— Crystal Gammon


Donate to Yale Environment 360