Opinions - 22.06.2017 - 00:00 

Vision vs. pragmatism: 25 years after the Rio Earth Summit

The 1990’s will always be remembered as a visionary one and the Rio Earth Summit is one of the reasons why. An op-ed by Klaus Dingwerth, Assistant Professor of Political Science.

23 June 2017. In the history of world politics, the list of successful international charters is unprecedented. Starting with the Paris Charter in 1990, leaders sketched a new security order for a Europe that soon would be united; in the winter of 1990/91, the UN Security Council legitimated military intervention in Iraq, which gave new life to Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 sought a world in which universally recognised basic rights are guaranteed. In 1997, the Ottawa Convention banned the production, use, stockpiling and trade of land mines. In 1998, the Rome Statute envisaged a world in which crimes against humanity would no longer go unpunished.

With this as a backdrop, few events symbolise this decade of visions better than the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) that celebrated its 25th anniversary this month. The high hopes attached to this conference primarily came from two sources.

Vision for international cooperation

First, awareness of global environmental problems had risen: deforestation, the ozone hole and global warming had entered the political agenda. Second, the peaceful end of the Cold War warranted the hope international cooperation could now work to address common problems: the age of "global governance" had arrived.

Like many world political gatherings of the 1990s, the Earth Summit ended with a strong political programme. It envisaged a global environmental order based on four key ideas: the polluter pays principle; the precautionary principle; the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities; and the notion of sustainable development.

What appeared normal in 1992 must seem wondrous from today’s point of view. A meeting of 172 governments that sketches a common vision of a future global environmental order? Hard to imagine in 2017.

Moving forward?

Today, cooperation is either stalled as in the World Trade Organization or progresses at a snail’s pace like in climate politics. Moreover, the idea of a coherent approach to world politics – of global governance "all of a piece" – seems naïve and therefore of little use today. The Paris Agreement illustrates the difference. From today’s perspective of pragmatic policy-making, it appears as a breakthrough.

From the visionary perspective of Rio, it must come as a disappointment that the same states that committed themselves to preventing "dangerous climate change" in 1992 have achieved little more by 2017.

Politically, however, it may not be such a bad thing that we have left the visionary age of the 1990's behind. A look in the rear-view mirror suggests that grandiose political goals can also do a lot of harm and that many lofty ideals were guided by wishful thinking rather than by attention to political realities.

In fact, while Rio may have been driven by ambitious and perhaps naïve goals, it failed to develop strong instruments to make that vision function. Of the five key documents adopted in Rio, three remained non-binding: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles.

Switching to pragmatism

Two others, the Climate Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, were adopted as legally binding international agreements. But since states failed to agree on many details, the agreements merely set a general framework for future negotiations in these areas. So maybe we should be relieved that states have switched to a more pragmatic mode.

Yet a look in the rear-view mirror also suggests that many accomplishments of the Earth Summit are tied to its visionary character. Rio’s focus on "sustainable development" has paved the way for it to become a growth industry. Rio has inspired and legitimated environmental movements around the world and helped them to network across borders.

Rio has put the environment on the agenda of national bureaucracies and thus generated path dependencies that facilitate change in the long run. Rio has brought governments from industrialised and developing countries together to align global environmental protection with development goals. And Rio has encouraged non-governmental organisations like the Forest Stewardship Council to develop global standards where states fail to do so.

Force of political visions
In sum, Rio reminds us of the force of political visions as well as of their shortcomings. The global environmental problems that states came together to address in Rio have not gone away – quite the opposite! To address them, a zeitgeist that simply rejects grand ideas will be of little help.

If we want change, we will need powerful narratives to mobilise and integrate political action. In the end, the 25th anniversary of the Earth Summit reminds us that we need a genuine political debate about the ideas that should guide our societies into the future; that we need a pragmatic and experimentalist approach in pursuing the political goals on which we can agree; and last, but not least, that we need patience as well as perseverance.

Photo: Fred Pinheiro / Photocase

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