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Last month saw back-to-back summits with lots of overlap in agenda but very little among the officials involved or the policy community that attempted to shape the outcomes. Within a single week, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries convened in Los Cabos, Mexico, for the G-20 Summit; some then traveled on to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a.k.a. Rio+20, the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit.

The outcomes of both conferences had potentially important implications for poor people in the developing world. Mexico included on the Los Cabos agenda “enhancing food security and addressing commodity price volatility” and “promoting sustainable development, green growth, and the fight against climate change.” The Rio+20 Summit attempted to cover all of this and much more.

I was curious about these common threads between the two summits, whether the outcomes were complementary, competitive, or contradictory, and whether there was anything we might learn about different approaches to solving global problems from comparing the process and outcomes of what we might call the 2012 20-20 summits.

To that end, I organized an event last week, Assessing the Los Cabos G-20 Summit and Rio+20 Earth Summit: Implications for Development (access video) that included opening remarks from Michael Froman, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs (a.k.a. the U.S. Sherpa to the G-20) and Ambassador Carlos Pascual, U.S. Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs (and former ambassador to Mexico). We then had a panel discussion that included two people whose work had focused on the G-20 (Kel Currah of the Gates Foundation and CGD senior fellow Kimberly Elliott) and two who had participated in Rio+20 (Nathan Hultman of Brookings and the University of Maryland and Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council).

Lawrence Macdonald, Kel Currah, Kimberly Ann Elliott, Nathan Hultman, and Jacob Sherr pictured above (from left to right)

Listening to the speakers and attempting to shape the discussion, I came away with three broad conclusions:

First, the obvious differences between the two approaches to global problem solving. By its very nature, the G-20 is exclusive and the approach is top-down and thus relatively disciplined. The Los Cabos Summit leaders’ declaration is a spare 15 pages of decently large type. The Rio+20 UN conference document, on the other hand, runs to a discouraging 53 pages of fine print. Writing in the NYT Mark McDonald called it “283 paragraphs of kumbaya.” Some NGO leaders were harsher, dismissing the conference as a massive failure. Kumi Naidu, the executive director of Green Peace International called the outcome document “the longest suicide note in history.” The Los Cabos Summit raised fewer expectations and mostly avoided such flames.

Second, when it comes to development impact, these differences may be more apparent than real. In both cases, much of the action is on the sidelines. Established in 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis, the G-20 is still quite a fluid institution. Each successive host country attempts to move the agenda forward while adding something of its own.  Yet some of the characteristics established in the early meetings, especially at the 2010 Seoul Summit, have persisted. Among these is the creation of the G-20 Development Working Group, a multilateral forum with senior official representation that attempts to lay the groundwork for G-20 official declarations. More controversial is the creation of a so-called B-20, a forum for the leaders of the world’s top corporations to interact with the G-20 government leaders.

Arguably the most promising development initiative to come out of Los Cabos was the AgResults program to provide pull-funding of ag tech innovations needed by poor, small-scale farmers, an effort that draws heavily on Elliott’s research. While the initiative is included in the G-20 declaration, the $100 million pilot fund is backed by just five countries (the United States among them) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Rather than being a formal commitment of the G-20 it is an ad hoc coalition that used the G-20 summit as a handy platform for an announcement and perhaps as an action-forcing event.

Like the G-20, Rio+20 had substantial private sector participation in the sidelines. Established by NRDC, the Cloud of Commitments Web site is tracking and counting these many pledges, which range from unilateral government and corporate commitments to multi-stakeholder partnerships. Examples: Microsoft’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2015 and a U.S. initiative with the Consumer Goods Forum (more than 600 retail, manufacturing and other companies with annual revenues of $3.1 trillion) to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020. By this measure—unilateral non-binding commitments by firms, countries, and ad hoc coalitions—Rio+20 may prove to have a more significant and lasting legacy than Los Cabos, the mealy-mouthed final outcome document notwithstanding.

Finally, given the increasingly urgent and fundamentally inseparable nature of the development challenge and the climate/energy challenges (see here and here for CGD contributions to this already voluminous literature) it’s clear that neither the G-20 nor Rio+20 nor any other international meeting, whatever the approach, has been able to come up with solutions of sufficient scale to avoid a looming planetary catastrophe. The increasing number of extreme weather events and rising average global temperatures mean that the window for action to avoid runaway climate change is rapidly closing. Both summit approaches are helpful. Unfortunately, neither is enough.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.