‘The influence and participation of civil society in governance structures is a critical aspect of sustainable development’: Rio+20 interview with Catherine Pearce, Campaign Manager, Future Justice for the World Future Council

Catherine Pearce is the Campaign Manager for Future Justice [www.futurejustice.org] at the World Future Council, which campaigns for the interests of future generations to be taken into account in policy-making. Catherine has almost a decade's experience in the area of climate and energy policy, having worked with the C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group, where she convened mayors and advisors on reducing emissions and energy use in some of the world's largest cities. She also coordinated the climate campaign for Friends of the Earth International and the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group in Westminster, UK.

What do you feel were the high and low points of the Rio+20 processes?

In the face of the enormity of our environmental and economic crises, Rio+20 offered a critical moment to seize new, visionary ideas and commit to ambitious, long-term action to secure the safekeeping of the planet and our very wellbeing.

Back in 2010, the Rio+20 Secretary-General, Sha Zukang, said, "There has never been a more urgent time to drive political will and action to make our societies more economically strong and socially and environmentally sustainable. We need to reinvigorate support here and now." Yet as Rio+20 neared, government positions became clear. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned them to resist the prioritisation of narrow national interests over the opportunity to take a new path to address the needs of the billions without, and safeguard the very sources of life on which we all depend.

These loaded statements were accompanied by inspiring civil society actions and campaigns, a high point perhaps, and stark warnings from the scientific community, all pointing in the same direction of what was required and expected of leaders in Rio.

The summit was never going to match its famous predecessor in Rio de Janeiro 20 years earlier. But while new legislation or new conventions were not a realistic part of the Rio+20 predicted outcome, some innovative new ideas were. The World Future Council had been actively promoting one such idea: to establish Ombudspersons for Future Generations. These would be independent guardians appointed at global, national and local levels whose job would be to help safeguard environmental and social conditions by speaking up authoritatively for future generations in all areas of policy-making.

Yet the reality of Rio showed that many of our leaders are still unable to look beyond the short term, or beyond national interests, or are bold enough to agree to new, visionary, commitments. Addressing our global challenges in narrow, isolated silos is a flawed approach, and yet it is inherent throughout the Rio final document. Few leaders acknowledge the basic fact that a thriving global economy cannot exist without the natural resources and ecosystems on which any economy is ultimately based. No living Earth means no human economy.

There were a handful of achievements, including the agreement on a process to define Sustainable Development Goals, and the launch of a programme of work building upon existing initiatives to go beyond GDP, in recognition of the need to redefine growth to deliver sustainable development.

Overall however, the outcomes of Rio showed us that if anything, the need to establish a principal advocate for the interests and needs of future generations, an Ombudsperson for Future Generations, is all the more pressing and apparent.

Despite huge support from many governments and across civil society, there was not enough agreement in Rio to establish this institution at the international level. The UN Secretary-General has been invited to present a report to consider how to take into account the needs of future generations. The status of this report, the expertise and input it gathers and the process by which it is written will need to be carefully considered in order to move this agenda forward and broaden understanding of how such institutions can be effective. An ambitious set of action-oriented recommendations should be part of the report. As well as building upon existing government support to this initiative, there is still a clear need to raise awareness of the concept of intergenerational equity, meeting the needs of future and present generations, and how this can be easily and practically applied.

If you could change anything in the Rio+20 outcome document, what would it be?

The World Future Council had been working for well over a year in the Rio+20 process, calling for Ombudspersons for Future Generations to be established at the international, national, regional and local levels to help overcome the short termism of our policy-making. We gathered enormous support around the world, including from many governments, from across civil society organisations and UN agencies. Yet Rio did not manage to agree to establish a High Level Representative for Sustainable Development and Future Generations – which was the final proposal in the text in Rio. If we could change anything in the document, it would be to see the support for this proposal reflected in the outcome document and see the establishment of this institution as part of the final agreement. While we don't imagine this proposal to be the answer to all our problems, it can certainly help in making systemic changes to how we perceive and address sustainable development. Examples from around the world, including Hungary, New Zealand and Wales, and now the Philippines, show the positive difference it has made in helping to bring true sustainability to the forefront of our minds, and to the decisions we take, for present generations, and those yet to be born.

Other than that, given that the entire document falls far short of the action, the ambition and urgency required, I would change the title to match the online petition – 'The Future We Don't Want'.

How would you evaluate civil society participation in the Rio+20 processes? Was our participation meaningful or tokenistic?

Civil society activity and presence throughout the negotiations was prolific, relevant and very inspiring. A great deal of time, money and expertise had been invested in this entire process, yet at critical moments our 'meaningful participation' was so restricted that it was entirely missing from the process. There were a large number of closed meetings in Rio, suggesting that many governments 'tolerate' our participation, but do not deem it as critical. Some questioned the presence of civil society. Unsurprisingly, we felt huge frustration and anger.

Looking back at each set of negotiations, not least in Rio itself, the schedule was filled with a comprehensive programme of side events organised by civil society, on themes relevant to the negotiations themselves. The constructive comments and ideas from these events all helped to inform these negotiations and further advance the proceedings, and yet so few government representatives actually attended them. Those who did fully engaged in the discussions.

These are all ongoing concerns, and not unique to the Rio+20 process. The influence and active participation of civil society in our governance structures is a critical aspect of sustainable development. I'm delighted that global governance will be an important theme at the CIVICUS World Assembly in September. Looking to the longer term, I think civil society needs to consider how to improve participation in UN processes. We have a rightful voice with legitimate representation, enormous expertise and experiences that far surpass a two minute statement as the only formal intervention from each major group.

This issue is perhaps all the more evident in the detail of the form and functions of the proposed high-level political forum that was agreed in Rio. The active role and participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders in the forum is certainly not assured, since 'retaining the intergovernmental nature of discussions' is emphasised. We as civil society will have to work hard and remain alert to the process by which the forum is negotiated over the coming two years to be sure we have a meaningful and strong presence.

What are the World Future Council's plans in the post-Rio+20 processes?

We will continue to promote the establishment of Ombudspersons for Future Generations at global, regional and national levels, working with active and engaged civil society organisations to further promote this proposal, raise awareness and help provide high level policy expertise on the themes of intergenerational equity.

We can learn a great deal from the existing ombudspersons already in post in places such as Wales and the Philippines, and also help to encourage other governments to set them up. Credible proposals are currently being discussed, for example in Belgium and Malta. We are calling for prioritisation of the report that the Secretary-General has been invited to provide, and hope that others will be doing the same. The process by which it is written will require attention and resourcing, to ensure that it offers informed, well researched and action-oriented recommendations. This report has to be a tool by which this important agenda is pursued and developed.