The Multilateralist

Will Rio be a telethon summit?

The Rio+20 earth summit officially kicks off on Wednesday. From around the world, heads of state and senior ministers are burning thousands of gallons of fuel jetting to Brazil for what will likely be a marathon negotiating session. The UN-sponsored conference aims to address the international governance structures for protecting the environment, to craft a ...

The Rio+20 earth summit officially kicks off on Wednesday. From around the world, heads of state and senior ministers are burning thousands of gallons of fuel jetting to Brazil for what will likely be a marathon negotiating session. The UN-sponsored conference aims to address the international governance structures for protecting the environment, to craft a strategy for green economic growth and, perhaps, to produce a set of sustainable development goals (which could mirror the Millenium Development Goals). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has inisted that the conference is "the expression of a dynamic global movement for change."

Rhetoric aside, most observers don’t expect much of substance to emerge in the conference’s ponderous and painstakingly negotiated "outcome" document. Katherine Sierra of the Brookings Institution said last week that the process thus far has been "both lackluster and contentious." Negotiations have been plagued by familiar divisions between the developed and developing world and by the unwillingness of financially-strapped rich states to take on new committments or contribute significant new funds. An alarmed Ban Ki-moon has several times goaded states to rise above their differences.

The gloom surrounding the Rio+20 summit is, in part, a product of the tough economic and political environment. But the low expectations also reflect a broader dynamic: what might be called "big-bang multilateralism"–in which the world’s nearly 200 sovereign states attempt to hammer out complex agreements–is mired in a losing streak.The Doha Round of international trade talks has effectively failed. The 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change was  a disaster (mitigated only a bit by the more productive Cancun summit). The issues are ferociously complex but so too are the dynamics of negotiating between so many states, particularly when the goal is near-consensus.

If the chances of much meaningful emerging through this formal negotiating process at Rio are slim, the summit does feature a mechanism that holds some promise.  The conference organizers have created a mechanism through which governments, corporations and other actors can "register" voluntary commitments. These pledges are not legally binding, but they are at least memorialized. And that fact may subject those making pledges to significant public pressure for compliance. Sierra argues that a "cloud" of commitments, plurilateral agreements, and initiatives may be one of the conference’s most notable outcomes.  

If this registry approach gains momentum, it’s even possible to imagine a very different kind of international summit, more telethon than negotiation. Instead of struggling to achieve lowest-common-denominator treaty language, states and other interested parties could make a series of individual or plurilateral committments to each other and subject themselves to the scrutiny of their publics, the UN, civil society, and the media. These piecemeal outcomes won’t satisfy those who believe only comprehensive treaties can solve the world’s collective-action problems. But they just might prevent Rio from being an expensive, and not terribly environmental, waste of time.          

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