Rio twenty years ago: NGLS interview with Andrey Vasilyev

In this interview, NGLS speaks with Andrey Vasilyev, Deputy Executive Secretary for UNECE, about his experience in Rio in 1992 during the United Conference on Environment and Development. Mr. Vasilyev is featured in the photograph on the right, next to the first Chair of the Commission on Sustainable Development, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia.

NGLS: Can you tell us about your experience from Rio? In what capacity did you attend the (Rio) meeting in 1992?

Andrey Vasilyev: I attended as a negotiator for my government in the preparatory process of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, even before it was called United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Later, just before the Conference, I joined the UNCED Secretariat as a consultant to elaborate proposals on the terms of reference of the future UN Commission on Sustainable Development and subsequently joined its Secretariat. At that time, sustainable development wasn’t entirely accepted by everyone. Some were excited, but some developing countries thought of the concept as an excuse for rich countries to continue with their levels of over consumption, preserving the resources of the poorer nations for future generations. That is why the Conference wasn’t called a “conference on sustainable development” but instead a “conference on environment and development.”

In the years prior to Rio, and the first years after, there was a lot of excitement and expectations, but unfortunately, after a few years, practical implementation proved to be much more challenging and to some extent things started to go round in circles.

NGLS: What were some of the most difficult issues involved in the lead up to Rio?

Andrey Vasilyev: I think one of the most difficult issues – and it still is today – is to understand what sustainable development is. Rio in itself while adopting Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration did not define sustainable development. There is a Brundtland definition, widely used and which makes sense, but politically it was never unanimously endorsed. [1] Understanding the terms has been the most difficult task, starting with conceptual issues which were difficult to accept. Other difficult issues included the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities. Each time negotiators met, there were more and more opinions and views expressed. However, it has helped move the developing world forward. Other thorny issues were provisions of Agenda 21 on financing and transfer of technology, in terms of what the North should provide to the South.

But the main challenge from the very beginning was that sustainable development was approached from the environmental side. However, sustainable development is an economic concept. Until sustainable development is integrated into economic policies it is difficult to make progress. It could be argued that the concept of development has gradually evolved into sustainable development from the 1960s when many countries of the South became independent and the G-77 became a force in the United Nations. Then issues of poverty and social progress of the South were firmly placed on the UN development agenda. After Stockholm in 1972 [United Nations Conference on the Human Environment], the environment became an issue of global concern. Subsequently, people started talking about the ideas behind sustainable development – meaning development that is not only socially but environmentally sustainable as well. It was a kind of a progression of this discussion that got us to sustainable development, but it is not only environmental. In reality, the environmental side cannot determine economic policies, it can only influence it. The key for success is to find the right balance between economic, social and environmental “pillars.” I once even heard that sustainable development doesn’t work well in a democratic society. The explanation was that governments usually focus on short-term concerns because when people go to vote, they focus on day-to-day things, like inflation, jobs, etc, and not on long term-plans. Long-term environmental plans do not win elections. I don’t think that, early on, economic policy-makers understood the concept of sustainable development very well. Now, we are introducing new concepts, such as green growth or green economy, etc, which are all very fancy but they don’t necessarily clarify the older concepts. We come up with new concepts before clarifying the ones we already have. While to achieve sustainable development economic policies and practices should be more environmentally oriented, there is a concern that we have forgotten what we already committed to in Rio back in 1992. In a way sustainable development is a mindset, and if this is not rooted in the minds of policy makers and corporate leaders, then we’ll be only moving in circles.

NGLS: What about the political will that was seen in 1992? Where is that political will now?

Andrey Vasilyev: The three years leading to Rio were probably as exciting as Rio itself. It was a period of great expectations. The impetus for Agenda 21 came from many young people, especially on the negotiator side, I was younger than 30 at the time. There was optimism in general as the Cold War was finished, the Iron Curtain was about to fall and the partnership between East and West seemed possible. There were also huge expectations that the North-South divide would start to decrease. There was the idea that a genuine global partnership could start to tackle global problems. There was a lot of excitement, expectations, commitment and creativity. It was really a remarkable period and I was happy to be part of it.

It was also a very honest negotiating process because it was negotiated by people who didn’t only negotiate for their own governments but they also grasped a bigger picture. To some extent, some of the expectations and hopes did not materialize. We still have the North-South divide, but there were also some new realities at that time that are now part of the political discussions, such as the group of emerging countries. But it was already before Rio that countries like China, India or Brazil were emerging as “superpowers” in the developing world. Such countries were very vocal and they brought up the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which intellectually is probably fair because developing countries were not historically responsible for most of the pollution and environmental degradation. But reality, historical facts and perceptions of justice are not necessarily immediately related in practical terms. It was not always very clear who was differentiated and how. The group of countries in transition also emerged though it was difficult to define who is in transition and when transition ends. Who is developed and who is not? These established categories do not always reflect the reality and this has been a challenge for global efforts towards sustainable development. If you talk about sustainable development, you can probably achieve it relatively easily in a small Swiss village, like the one I live in, and if you put a “bubble” on it. But the problem is that you cannot put the bubble on the entire globe. In the earlier Rio process, there was a lot of romanticism involved and high expectations but there were also some conceptual misunderstandings and practical challenges.

In early climate change negotiations there were expectations that the model for phasing out ozone depleting substance such as CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] can be applied to CO2 emissions. But it is one thing to get rid of a dangerous chemical or pollution and another to change the way the whole economy works, considering that combating climate change is very much about the efficient use of energy and CO2 is not a pollutant but very much part of the natural cycle.

After Rio, everyone said well that is all a great achievement and now we need to implement the Rio outcomes in practical terms. But practical terms are always much more difficult than negotiating a piece of paper and inserting an “as soon as possible” in the right paragraph. This makes the media happy because it translates a sense of urgency but in practical terms an “as soon as possible” means anything between now and never.

Actually in draft Agenda 21 the initial paragraph on financial commitments of the North was “Developed countries affirm their commitments to reach the UN target of 0.7% of their GNP [gross national product] for official development assistance...” but then after the final round of private negotiations the text was “slightly” changed with the addition of “re” before “affirm” and also of “as soon as possible.” At the end of the deal everybody was happy. But then everybody realized that “reaffirms” doesn’t apply for the US since it had never committed to the ODA target before. And for other countries “as soon as possible” can vary because what is “soon” for one can be “not so soon” or even “never possible” for another.

Success in practical implementation can not rely only on words in a negotiated paragraph. In the end it is not about words because the same paragraph can be interpreted as a success or a failure, depending on who gives it meaning. And in diplomacy failures are hardly ever reported. That was the reality, but, nevertheless big discussions and negotiations are still important since they generate momentum, mobilize political will and empower civil society. In that sense Rio was quite remarkable.

NGLS: And did you see that continue in Johannesburg?

Andrey Vasilyev: While Johannesburg added some new provisions and commitments to Agenda 21, the new feature of Johannesburg was the idea of new partnerships for sustainable development – both among interested countries and between governments and civil society, particularly the private sector. There was a concern, however, that such partnerships will deplete or replace “global commitments” by governments. The reality, however, is that the role of the government, in spite of all its importance, is limited if we take into account the role of private sector and civil society. Without actions from these sectors, sustainable development can’t happen.

But partnerships in Johannesburg were again often seen more as commitments of the rich to help the poor. They were not seen as genuine economic partnerships towards sustainable development but rather as “charities” for specific sustainable development objectives from individual donors or private foundations.

One important question is how you integrate sustainable development into corporate decision making. And the second related question is how you can make it profitable. Now there are some new technologies, products and markets that could allow investors and the private sector to get profits out of sustainable development, but it’s not so easy. And again the government needs to create the proper environments for these to flourish. Unless there is really a way to make it profitable, sustainable development will risk staying at the level of declarations.

NGLS: What values do you associate with sustainable development?

Andrey Vasilyev: Vision, responsibility and creativity.

NGLS: What do you think of the role of civil society? Do you think it is as important now as it was 20 years ago?

Andrey Vasilyev: Well I cannot measure if it is increasing or not but definitely what Rio did is provide an opportunity for civil society to engage beyond pure advocacy. Their participation became more elaborated and the voice of civil society was heard much more. The same happened with some of the private sector and even, as we realized later, some of it was just marketing, still it was a first practical step for the involvement of the private sector in helping to achieve the United Nations agenda. It also activated specific interest groups like consumers who wanted more sustainable products. But it was a complicated process because a lot of civil society was fragmented into very small groups sometime with diverse interests. But for certain groups making sure they could speak with one voice became very important since they realized that this greatly increases their impact on the process. The main thing was that the nature of civil society involvement changed from pure advocacy to much more substantive inputs, and they could offer solutions, including for governments.

NGLS: The outcome document of Rio+20 is to be a brief “focused political document.” Any thoughts on this?

Andrey Vasilyev: The document, whether brief or long, would be good enough if it reconfirms Agenda 21, since it is still valid and needs to be implemented. The idea of partnerships with the private sector is also important. As long as all parties agree that they should be in the business of sustainable development, then it could make a difference.

Renewed political commitment but, most importantly, practical solutions, is what is needed. And the UN is not only about negotiating nice declarations, but it is also about putting peer pressure, building multi-stakeholder partnerships, networking, showing what are practical solutions, and what are the best practices. For example, UNECE [United Nations Economic Commission for Europe] has a broad range of very practical activities in eco-innovation, public-private partnerships, energy efficiency, cleaner vehicles, sustainable transport, forestry and housing, among others, which contribute both to the Rio+20 process but also to progress towards sustainable development on the ground.

Negotiating declarations, however, sometimes becomes an addiction. I am sure, that if I was personally taking part in the negotiations, I would also be making lots of comments on the draft document.

[1] “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: — the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and — the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.” World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987 p. 43.

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