At a time when the headline issues are economic growth and financial crises, few countries would willingly commit themselves to new treaties and conventions. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a significant occasion such as the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development produced no new binding agreements that could ensure the future well-being of the world’s natural capital and its people. Rio’s unfinished agenda is to measure human well-being and sustainability using a good set of tools, rather than a narrow metric such as GDP, and reach a consensus on development. Obviously, any measure that does not fully calculate the cost of present development to future generations is flawed. The Rio+20 conference in Brazil failed to measure up to this task. It was bigger than its predecessor summit, but achieved less. Twenty years ago, the Rio Summit produced Agenda 21 and its major principle of common but differentiated responsibilities for the rich and poor countries in dealing with environmental and development imperatives. That this foundational principle is retained in the Rio+20 outcome document “The future we want” provides some hope that equitable approaches will continue to guide global efforts.
A key theme that dominated Rio+20 is the so-called Green Economy. There is certainly much to be gained by shifting development to a green path. As the outcome document points out, countries could be matched on the basis of national sustainable development priorities and availability of financing and technology transfer. In the absence of a firm agreement, though, such efforts can only be pursued by coalitions of the willing. It is worth pointing out here, that any estimate of the net benefits of a green economy must include the impact of consumption of resources, and environmental pollution. Markets are weak at accounting for negative factors, notably pollution, but efficient at pricing resources that go into production. This has led to an exaggerated emphasis on extraction and consumption. Elsewhere, Rio+20 has made weak references to the human right to water, empowerment of women, the poor, indigenous people, disabled and vulnerable groups, belying expectations of stronger support. What is important is for India and other fast-growing nations to invest heavily in human capital to help such citizens, notably in education and health, and preserve its stock wealth. It must also start producing data on sustainability indicators, such as polluting emissions, nutrient overload in water bodies, health of select natural species, habitat conversion, and fish stocks. That can make development sustainable.