If you have had a little trouble following the international goings on, what with climate change and the run-up to Rio+20 next June, you are not alone.   The climate negotiations are difficult enough to keep up with, but Rio definitely requires a roadmap.  Fortunately the UN Secretariat has created a web site that helps, http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?menu=14, and it includes a useful calendar of events, http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?menu=46.  But for those who are not up to speed on PrepComs and Intersessional Meetings, here is a thumbnail sketch of the background and current status of the process.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development, AKA UNCED or the Earth Summit, took place in Rio in 1992.  It gave us the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity. The Commission on Sustainable Development was then established to follow up on Agenda 21 and the other work of Rio.  In 2000, the UN adopted its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) which put the environment and sustainable development in a wider context.  On the tenth anniversary of Rio in 2002 the world again convened, this time in Johannesburg at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).  From that came the Johannesburg Plan of Action (JPOI) aimed at implementing the Rio commitments, and the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development.  Now, another ten years on the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, is being planned for next June.

The Conference will focus on two themes: (1) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (2) the institutional framework for sustainable development.  There are seven primary issues of concern:  jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans and disasters.  The Conference will be co-chaired by UN Ambassadors John Ashe (Antigua & Barbuda) and Sook Kim (Korea), and is supported by the UN Secretary General’s representative, Secretary-General of Rio+20 Sha Zukang, a Chinese diplomat.

When the UN General Assembly laid out the plans for Rio+20, it directed that three Preparatory Committee meetings (PrepComs) be held to do the groundwork, and appointed a Bureau and small executive committee to help manage the PrepComs and the Rio+20 Conference itself.    The first two PrepComs were at UN Headquarters in New York in May 2010 and March 2011.  The third will occur in Rio just before Rio+20.  After PrepCom II, various regional meetings took place to facilitate input to the process, including special sub-regional meetings for the SIDS (Small Island Developing States, not sudden infant death syndrome), who have been making their voices heard in the Rio process, just as they have with the climate negotiations.

The Conference Bureau received written submissions from a broad range of State, NGO and other commenters about what should transpire at Rio and what the outcome should be, and compiled a reference document of over 6000 pages.  The Bureau is to prepare and circulate in January a draft text of the hoped-for outcome document of the Rio Conference (the zero draft).  That draft will become the basic negotiating text.

To keep things moving between the PrepComs “Intersessional Meetings” have been held, the second of which just concluded at the UN.  Although the 2d Intersessional Meeting was intended to discuss the general shape and structure of the zero draft, most delegates did not refrain from detailing their positions on its contents.  And the typical disagreements between developed and developing countries emerged.  While there seemed to be general agreement on the green economy theme, developing countries stressed that it could not trump their need to provide higher living standards for their peoples.  It is not yet clear to many delegates how green economic ideas support their MDG priorities.

Concluding the meeting, UNCSD Secretary-General Sha stressed the sense of the delegates that a final Rio document should be concise, with clear goals and commitments, – a document for the people and not just the technocrats.  His summary gave encouragement to many, since it seemed to presage what will be in the zero draft, including sustainable development goals (SDGs) similar to the Millennium Development Goals, an enhanced UN Environment Program, and a sustainable development council.  The meeting ended on a positive note, but the real labor will begin when the zero draft comes forward.

For a more detailed description of the history and current status of Rio+20 planning take a look at the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb2712e.pdf.