The Contested Legacy of Rio + 20

Maria Ivanova

Global Environmental Politics, Volume 13, Number 4, November 2013, pp. 1-11 (Article) Published by The MIT Press

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Munyaradzi Chenje. June 26. and Ambassador John W. as weak and lacking vision. “After Rio. entitled The Future We Want. high hopes and expectations for bold commitments by governments to a new. Kumi Naidoo.1162/GLEP_e_00194 © 2013 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1 . nearly ªfty thousand people gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the largest-ever global environmental summit—the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rioϩ20). 3. 1.”3 Many activists also criticized the ªfty-page outcome document. They committed ªnancial. ambitious. 4. Global Environmental Politics 13:4. 2012.” The Guardian. Executive Director of Greenpeace International. Tse Yang Lim. “Designed with a wide range of objectives. Rocard 2012. the conference seems destined to fail. Leape 2012. Leape 2012. George Monbiot. Natalia Escobar-Pemberthy. as soon as Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff declared the conference closed. no action can be taken. 2. observers were predicting its failure.The Contested Legacy of Rioϩ20 Maria Ivanova Special Forum on Rioϩ20 The Contested Legacy of Rio؉20 • Maria Ivanova* In June 2012. Greenpeace dubbed it “the longest suicide note in history. Governments renewed their political pledges to sustainable development but stopped short of concrete and comprehensive targets and timetables. We Know. Stanley Johnson. doi:10. June 25. technological. Progress seemed more palpable on the sidelines of Rioϩ20 as hundreds of voluntary commitments sprang up and pledges of over $513 billion poured in. McDonald for comments on earlier drafts. but not at the scale necessary to address persistent global problems. Was this global conference another wasteful talk shop or the causal mechanism behind aggregate shifts in international politics? What happened at Rio that represented a real change in the context of global environmental governance? * The author would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. quoted in Time. and consensus will be impossible. 2012. November 2013. analysts pronounced it a “colossal failure of leadership and vision”2 and said it showed that “governments have given up on the planet. Long before the conference started. as well as Marija Bingulac. former prime minister of France. and institutional resources. Governments Have Given up on the Planet. collective global vision and concrete action remained unfulªlled. Brice Lalonde. “Without consensus.1 Indeed.” noted Michel Rocard.”4 Indeed.” he further remarked.

. In the two decades since Rio 1992. They agreed on a set of global principles. Yet. three further “mega-conferences” have deªned the ªeld. Three main areas stand out: reform of international institutions.” 113 governments came together for two weeks at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. and shaped the global narrative:6 • The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio Earth Summit). Of the ninety most important global environmental goals. with 181 governments and 100 heads of state. with 188 governments and 105 heads of state. The global decisions in these domains and the unprecedented local engagement provide critical junctures likely to shape global environmental governance for the next two decades. outlined an action agenda.7 Meanwhile. Biodiversity. The Road to Rio Rioϩ20 marked the culmination of forty years of global environmental governance. The title and venue of Rioϩ20 led many to expect another Rio Earth Summit. In 1992. 6. with 172 governments and 108 heads of state in attendance. yet signiªcant. They also created a new institution. In 1972. UNGA 1972. to monitor and report on Agenda 21’s fulªllment. and Desertiªcation. created its institutions. I argue that the conference’s impacts are subtle.2 • The Contested Legacy of Rioϩ20 In this article. they are rarely met. Seyfang and Jordan 2002. their interconnectedness requiring collective action at multiple scales. and agreed on Agenda 21. O’Neill 2007. just after the end of the Cold War. the Commission on Sustainable Development. states have focused on a multitude of domestic and regional problems making global consensus markedly more difªcult. In the run-up to Rioϩ20. sustainable development goals (SDGs). comprehensive vision for sustainable development through the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. governments outlined a broad. and formed a new UN body to promote international cooperation in the ªeld of the environment—the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 5.5 Since then. under the motto “Only One Earth. 2012b. jump-started approval processes for what have come to be known as the Rio Conventions on Climate. I offer an assessment of the Rioϩ20 conference grounded in a historical perspective and reºect on its results and consequences. and multiple environmental indicators show decline. while global goals have proliferated. • The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rioϩ20). a 350-page voluntary action plan. • The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg Summit). UNEP 2012a. 7. and participation as principle and practice. global problems have increased in number and complexity. only four showed progress in 2012.

The ambiguous ªnal outcome of Rioϩ20. Rioϩ20 did not seek to repeat the Rio Earth Summit’s achievements. eliminated many contentious points and introduced compromise language for others. its intention was “to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development. 2012. only 37 percent of the draft outcome document was agreed. political leaders from around the world signed on to the outcome document. until the host country stepped in and within twenty-four hours produced a revised outcome document. On June 22. and China and India were experiencing growth and stability concerns. It also. economic. and four informal consultations. and political commitment to a shared vision for an economic. raised concerns about the speed with which it was revised and. three intersessional meetings. The Future We Want does not present a grand transformative vision but reafªrms past political commitments. This approach contributed to the rapid conclusion of the negotiations and consensus around the ªnal outcome document. however. Against this backdrop. Countries’ visions for the multilateral system have diverged sharply. governments gathered at three preparatory committee meetings (PrepComs). the requisite sacriªce of transparency and consultation. and society. It also underscores the reality that there is no single overarching solution to contemporary environmental. economy. mostly decided in closed-door consultations. with numerous brackets denoting disputed proposals or concepts. It covers every possi8. and mistrust. assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges. has been perceived both as a meaningless potpourri of issues and as a successful outcome of a global gathering many considered doomed to failure.Maria Ivanova • 3 Europe was engrossed in the euro crisis. or social problems—much less so to all of them collectively. the US was wrestling with economic challenges following the ªnancial crisis and was embroiled in the 2010 presidential elections. social. Just days before heads of state were to arrive in Rio. suspicion. Instead. hence. Rio 20: Rapid Assessment Over the two years preceding Rioϩ20. All meetings were held in New York except the third PrepCom. . sustainable development remains an aspirational concept with multiple meanings for multiple constituencies. or perhaps impossible. The Future We Want.9 Riddled with political tensions. and environmental future has become increasingly difªcult. 9. negotiations were excruciatingly slow. The revisions. which took place in Rio de Janeiro just before Rioϩ20. Obstacles persisted throughout the negotiations in Rio.”8 Seeking to integrate and balance environment. the Middle East was in political turmoil. The draft text ballooned from 20 to 200 pages. UNGA 2010.

Reform of UNEP had been the subject of government deliberations for over a decade. jobs. . water. timelines. and energy. Inclusive of every possible topic within sustainable development.4 • The Contested Legacy of Rioϩ20 ble concern under the broad rubric of sustainable development. they committed to “strengthen and upgrade” UNEP by expanding its governing 10. governments decided that a dramatic change in UNEP’s institutional form was neither necessary nor sufªcient for UNEP to fulªll its mandate. and 67/L. Beginning with the 1997 Rioϩ5 Summit at the UN headquarters. 67/246. it offers no targets. authorized new political processes. The document lists twenty-six thematic areas including biodiversity. Yet The Future We Want did achieve what the authorizing resolution (64/236) called for in securing renewed political commitment for sustainable development. provided a budget of about $10 million for follow-up in 2013. climate. was simply that it did not regress. It outlined the reform of environment and sustainable development institutions.10 Despite systematic pressure from the European Union and a number of scholars to transform UNEP from a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly into a specialized agency. The key to understanding Rioϩ20’s impact lies in discerning the detail in the broad political statements and the numerous ofªcial and unofªcial activities that constituted the conference. Rioϩ20 set the agenda of the next two decades for global environmental and sustainability governance. including a process on articulating SDGs. social exclusion. and offered a wide range of actors license to move toward solving them. 67/213 on UNEP. some observers lamented. three UN General Assembly resolutions operationalized the results of Rioϩ20: 67/203 on Rioϩ20 follow-up. While the document highlights the interconnectedness among issues that cut through the environmental. Ivanova 2013 (forthcoming). among others. or speciªc objectives. it altered UNEP’s institutional form and agreed to abolish the Commission on Sustainable Development. and social classiªcations. and subsequently under various auspices in the UN General Assembly and UNEP’s Governing Council. Rather.72 on the high-level political forum on sustainable development. brought a broad spectrum of issues within the sustainable development mandate. Despite signiªcant political constraints and predictions of imminent failure. As of June 2013. Two processes are still in negotiation: on sustainable development goals and on a ªnancing strategy for sustainable development. these discussions continued with the preparatory meetings for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Its most important achievement. Reform of International Institutions Rioϩ20’s most important legacy is the reform of the international institutions for environment and sustainable development. and equity. Another resolution. environmental and social costs of production and consumption. economic. it does not prioritize any areas or express a particular sense of urgency.

Ultimately. With conferences of the parties comprising from 116 to 197 members. and a specialized agency status would not grant UNEP authority over the conventions without signiªcant amendments to their existing structures.” Resolution 67/213 committed contributions from the UN regular budget in a manner that adequately reºects the organization’s administrative and management costs. 13. Financially. It will also allow UNEP greater ability to engage in the work of the conventions. However.”12 Importantly. Scanlon 2012. stable. and 67/251 of March 13. As a result of Rioϩ20. UNEP has to earn the necessary inºuence to coordinate and oversee the work of the conventions and produce a coherent response to environmental challenges. explicitly afªrmed UNEP’s leadership role in environmental governance.Maria Ivanova • 5 council from ªfty-eight countries to universal membership. Afªrming the need for “secure. 2012. The outcome document. p. UNEP Governing Council decision 27/2 on institutional arrangements. Resolution 67/213 also requests the UN Secretary-General to ensure that the budgetary resources UNEP receives correspond to the scope of its work program.13 Contributions from the UN regular budget to UNEP’s core operational needs would serve a role similar to that of assessed contribu11. and by expanding its role in capacity building and implementation. 1972. by increasing its ªnancial resources through greater contributions from the UN regular budget. The new resolution noted that “the costs of servicing the Governing Council and providing the small secretariat . the conventions have reportedly been reluctant to accept UNEP as an authority. 2013. 12. even the UN General Assembly holds no formal authority over the conventions. and UN General Assembly resolutions 67/213 of December 21. as its governing council transformed into the UN Environment Assembly. which will increase the share of UN regular budget resources from the current 4 percent of UNEP’s total budget (or $6 million per year). UNGA 2013b. UNEP became the only UN subsidiary organ with universal membership. This change is expected to grant UNEP greater legitimacy vis-à-vis member states and multilateral environmental agreements. programme support and administrative costs of the Environment Fund shall be borne by the Fund. more stable and predictable ªnances. 3. . . . and formal authority—without the limitation of a lengthy treaty negotiation process. These documents accord UNEP some key attributes of a specialized agency—universality.11 This is an explicit return to Resolution 2997 (XXVII) of December 15. thus according its decisions greater legitimacy. shall be borne by the regular budget of the United Nations and that operational programme costs. Universal membership in the environment assembly will formally involve all UN member states in decision-making. UNEP also emerged in a stronger position. which created UNEP. UNGA 1972. adequate and predictable ªnancial resources for UNEP.

the CSD had failed to catalyze sufªcient political commitment and action.”15 Unable to address contemporary global challenges and add value to existing processes.14 Through the renewed political commitment to UNEP. ensuring due consideration of new and emerging challenges.6 • The Contested Legacy of Rioϩ20 tions in specialized agencies. China’s premier and Brazil’s president announced contributions of $6 million each. opposition to the CSD came from many UN agencies. The ambitious mandate carries the power for more effective coordination and integration of sustainable development at all levels. scope and ambition of the sustainable development agenda and the role. 16. UNGA 2013a. The core functions of the new high-level political forum are to provide political leadership for sustainable development. relevance and value of the CSD itself. governments afªrmed a greater role for UNEP in helping nation states to build capacity and implement environmental commitments.16 The forum will convene at the heads of state level in the General Assembly every four years beginning in 2014. Rioϩ20’s outcome document and the General Assembly resolution creat14. IISD 2007. follow up and review progress in implementation of sustainable development commitments. They emphasized that it was important for UNEP to enhance its voice and ability to realize its coordination mandate. by increasing its engagement in key coordination bodies and by leading efforts to formulate UN system-wide strategies on the environment. Moreover. governments decided to abolish the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD)—the central institutional outcome of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit—and replace it with a high-level intergovernmental political forum. Indeed. It also poses the peril of vacuous promises if not properly operationalized and executed. a stable and predictable amount providing certainty for a core budget. a role that would bring the organization closer to on-the-ground activities. Its futile negotiations (such as in 2007 on energy and climate change) illustrated the “fundamental disagreements between states on the nature. UNEP could then raise program resources through entrepreneurial means. particularly in the environmental ªeld. Ivanova 2011. enhance integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and crosssectoral manner at all levels. . and annually at the ministerial level in the Economic and Social Council. Importantly. In a rare institutional reform move. Despite several attempts to revamp its program of work and its format. putting them among UNEP’s top twenty donors. para 2. and provide an action-oriented agenda. support for UNEP at Rioϩ20 went beyond rhetoric and came from unexpected quarters. 15. the CSD had come to be seen as ineffective and even counterproductive. which saw its efforts as duplicative. countries formally afªrmed the organization’s mandate in its entirety—from the initial General Assembly resolution to the latest political declaration.

environmental sustainability. . Center for Governance and Sustainability at University of Massachusetts Boston. To develop the goals. Iguchi et al. however. but they do not provide a clear division of labor between the environment and sustainable development institutions. The SDGs. Once developed. On January 22. The MDGs have underscored the power of a global vision. nominated by member states. Chaired by Hungary and Kenya. have similarly gained political center stage. which they perceive will shape the new global goals. much like their predecessors. Thus the potential for overlap. Sustainable Development Goals Many observers agree that one of the most important outcomes of Rioϩ20 was the agreement to set global SDGs.17 Inspired by the millennium development goals (MDGs). Caroline Spelman. 2013. The ªnal composition of the group has therefore grown from thirty to seventy countries. 2012. “Rioϩ20 Agree to ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ Says. in Nairobi Kenya.” The Telegraph. harnessed resources. Melamed and Ladd 2013. 2012. as most member states demand to be engaged in the process. June 20. which the Rioϩ20 outcome document envisioned as comprising thirty representatives from the ªve UN regional groups. February 19. governments established a new intergovernmental process. Interview with André Correa do Lago. the group expects to deliver results in February 2014. and governance tools. Envisioned as comprehensive and universal. the MDGs. overseen by the UN General Assembly and open to all stakeholders. and multilateral environmental agreements remains signiªcant and threatens to perpetuate the dynamic that led to the institutional reform in the ªrst place. The outcome document reºected the evolving global norm for participation— from the “full and effective participation of all countries in decision making 17. Louise Gray. and competition between the new forum. and induced governments and others to collect and produce new data and information. UNEP. the UN General Assembly adopted a decision (67/555) to establish the open working group on SDGs. duplication. which are set to expire in 2015. They are also likely to inºuence ofªcial development assistance priorities. Participation as Principle and Practice Rioϩ20 called for increased global engagement in environmental governance. 2013. the SDGs will seek to frame the nexus between basic human needs. the SDGs will focus on priority areas for sustainable development and apply to both developed and developing countries. has proven more difªcult than expected. Griggs et al. fostered public awareness. suggested by Colombia and Guatemala and supported by multiple international scientiªc and political panels. social equity. They have mobilized political attention. Selecting thirty countries. 2013. the goals will likely chart the course of sustainable development for the coming decades.Maria Ivanova • 7 ing the forum set out a comprehensive vision for a new UN institution. other UN institutions. Evans and Steven 2012.

UN Secretary-General 18. and insurance companies signed on to the Natural Capital Declaration. committing to “help build an understanding of their impacts and dependencies on natural capital. UNGA 2012. and account for natural capital in accounting frameworks. two hundred CEOs met in their own parallel event—the Business Action for Sustainable Development Conference—to encourage business to implement change at scale. forests. chief justices. in the face of opposition. report or disclose on the theme of natural capital. 4. . articulating education and sustainability goals and initiatives in campuses and communities worldwide. Natural Capital Declaration 2012. Myriad local initiatives have sprung up in cities and on campuses across the planet. green economy. and universities registered over 600 voluntary commitments in energy. acknowledging the feebleness of previous commitments from the private sector. investment funds. para 16. embed natural capital into their products and services.19 During the 10 days of the conference. businesses.” Meanwhile. planning and implementation of policies and programmes for sustainable development at all levels.”20 Thirty prominent insurance companies worth over $5 trillion launched the Principles for Sustainable Insurance.8 • The Contested Legacy of Rioϩ20 processes” to enhancing the participation and “effective engagement” of civil society in multiple governance aspects. water. 500 of them at the ofªcial conference center. Civil society engagement in articulating a new global vision for sustainable development has continued beyond the conference. UNGA 2013a. In negotiations during the ªrst universal UNEP governing council in 2013. The “people’s summit”—organized as a counter-conference across the city—brought together 15. 76(h).18 Paragraphs 42 to 55 of the outcome document afªrm the commitment to engage non-state actors in “processes that contribute to decision-making. 19. governments began to apply it more forcefully after Rioϩ20. “Come re-invent the world. where it extended beyond the traditional nine major groups to explicitly include academic institutions and other stakeholders. Leaders of thirty-seven banks. disaster reduction.000 people looking for alternatives to the ofªcial government processes under the banner. Thousands of students and faculty from across the world engaged in Rioϩ20 as thinkers and doers. and prosecutor generals gathered at the World Congress on Justice in Rio to articulate the role of courts in environmental policy. This norm has also been adopted in the new high-level political forum on sustainable development. para 76(e). and mobilized over $513 billion to meet them.000 side events took place in Rio. that civil society participation in deliberations on environmental matters be explicitly required within the new UN Environment Assembly. civil society groups. desertiªcation. some governments insisted. agriculture and more. 20. Hundreds of judges. aiming to green the sector and provide insurance tools for risk management.” While a broad norm of participation had been in existence. transport. Governments.

The Future We Want afªrmed that the problems of today are similar to those the world faced in preceding decades but bigger and more interconnected. As a result. At the 21. social inclusion. its impact on Rio de Janeiro offers a glimpse into what is possible when global political gatherings catalyze political action. June 24. and reafªrmation of past principles created a sense of endless and even meaningless discussion. Rioϩ20 could not zero in on a handful of issues.22 and lauded as the causal mechanisms behind aggregate shifts in international politics. it had to tackle all. the panel includes eminent people from government. The conference brought sustainability into the mainstream media and into everyday conversations in the host city. and conªrmed participation as a core principle and practice.Maria Ivanova • 9 Ban Ki-moon convened a high-level panel to advise on the global development agenda beyond 2015 and “prepare a bold yet practical development vision . Haas 2002. recommended the creation of SDGs. The Christian Science Monitor. Rio 20’s Legacy Mega-conferences have been both criticized as wasteful talk shops. academia.”21 Cochaired by the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the prime minister of the UK.000 people ºowed through the Humanity 2012 exhibit near Copacabana Fort that showed a possible model of development integrating economic prosperity. . and enthusiasm to make a change in their communities and around the world. . The long list of concerns. Though verbose and cautious. 23. for a global post-2015 agenda with shared responsibilities for all countries and with the ªght against poverty and sustainable development at its core. . lack of clear priorities. the largest of which brought together thousands of protesters concerned about the lack of progress on sustainability and global justice. and environmental stewardship. Despite its ºaws. 24. 22. NGOs. energy. governments completed the long-standing institutional reform process. offered options for rethinking ªnancing. Fomerand 1996. Rioϩ20 looks to have proven both correct. and business and has engaged in a sustained dialogue with civil society around the world. While it may be too soon to assess Rioϩ20’s results for global affairs. An estimated 200.23 Commentators question the utility of global conferences as political gatherings but acknowledge their power to draw together large numbers of people with the necessary commitment.24 Rio’s municipal government issued permits for twenty-three demonstrations. UN 2012. A public opinion survey showed that 74 percent of Rio residents knew about the conference and its goals. Under the banner of sustainable development. it catalyzed grass-roots political activism and national political leadership. Rioϩ20 brought together political capital in ways that would not have been possible without the focus of the conference. 74. 2012.

. David. Banco do Brasil announced a large loan to clean up the lagoons in Barra da Tijuca. Simon Hoiberg Olsen. which will engage in knowledge creation and dissemination locally and globally. 2012. Johan Rockström. ———. accessed January 29. 2011. Summary of the Fifteenth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development: 30 April–11 May. 2013. Ivanova. 2013. Rioϩ20’s lasting legacy will likely be subtle yet signiªcant through the institutions it reformed. Öhman. Brazilian governors signed the 2012 Rio Declaration. and the local initiatives it inspired. UN Conferences and Constructivist Governance of the _series.10 • The Contested Legacy of Rioϩ20 same Haas.panda.umb. Norichika Kanie. Earth Negotiations Bulletin 5 (254). 2013. Alex. 2007. the World Centre for Sustainable Development. and David Steven. 1996. Available at http://www. Rioϩ20 Conference: Hopes and Expectations Before UN Summit June 14. Gisbert Glaser. Maria. Center for Governance and Sustainability: University of Massachusetts Boston. Global Governance 8 (1): 73–91. References Evans. Available at: http://wwf. 2012. And the Brazilian government announced the creation of Rioϩ Centre. and Ian Noble. UN Conferences: Media Events or Genuine Diplomacy? Global Governance 2 (3): 361–375. Mark Stafford-Smith. Iguchi. Marcus C. IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development). it might just be the critical juncture catalyzing the formation of a new group of leaders. Brazil. Griggs. 2002.hufªngtonpost. 2012. 12 (3): forthcoming. and Ikuho Miyazawa. Sustainable Development Goals—A useful outcome from Rio 20. Rio de Janeiro. Japan: Tokyo Tech / IGES / UNU-IAS. accessed May 2. perceptive leaders of tomorrow attuned to local realities. Priya Shyamsundar. New York. Peter. Leape. Tokyo. the values it reafªrmed. Rio’s City Hall proposed tax incentives for green construction. committing to 20-percent reduction in energy consumption in public buildings and emissions from transportation by 2020. Governance and Sustainability Issue Brief Series: Brief 1. 2013. Policy: Sustainable Development Goals for People and Planet. Nature 495 (7441): 305– Masahiko. accessed June 11. Statement to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Current Outlook on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): A Brief Analysis of Country Positions. Available at http://www. In essence. The Hufªngton Post. the global goals it launched. International Journal of Technology Management & Sustainable Development. Owen Gaffney. Jacques. Indeed. NY: NYU Center of International Cooperation. WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). Fomerand. 2013. Will Steffen. Reforming the Institutional Framework for Environment and Sustainable Development: Rioϩ20’s Subtle but Signiªcant Impact. Jim. Financing International Environmental Governance: Lessons from the United Nations Environment Programme. the adaptive. globally.html. 2012.

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