Nonstate Actors and Sustainable Development

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio +20 (since 20 years have passed since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) wrapped up on Friday and produced some interesting results.  Sustainable development refers to economic development–an activity often associated with environmental degradation–that preserves the environment for future generations.  The Rio +20 Conference website elaborates on this concept as follows:

“Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

Despite numerous opportunities (e.g., Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009) states have generally failed to produce environmental treaties that are both binding and include the world’s major polluters.  For example, on the issue of climate change, states that are responsible for the largest emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g., the U.S. and China) have been unwilling to cause potential harm to their economies by substantially reducing emissions.  Developed and developing countries have traded accusations as some of the former have refused to sign on to binding treaties unless the latter countries are also forced to cut emissions (a requirement developing countries view as unfair and hypocritical). 

Despite (and perhaps because of) this gridlock at the interstate level, nonstate actors have begun to pick up the slack on environmental issues in important ways.  This may be part of a general evolution away from the state-centric Westphalian international system as power in an age of globalization has become dispersed among more and more actors, including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs), Multinational Corporations (MNCs), terrorist groups, and even individuals.  A New York Times article summarizing the results of the conference was entitled “Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends.”   The article describes some of these achievements as follows:

“Yet despite this record [of failure for state-centric treaties], the activity outside the main negotiating sessions here produced hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress…For instance, Microsoft said it would roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Italian oil giant Eni said it would reduce its flaring of natural gas. Femsa, a Latin American soft-drink bottler, said it would obtain 85 percent of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable sources…A group of development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.”

MNCs are the primary type of nonstate actor featured in this article, but local governments, NGOs, and prominent individuals are increasingly active in shaping agendas and mobilizing action on environmental issues. 

What do you think?  Are nonstate actors now the leaders in dealing with environmental problems?  What are the limits of these actors’ influence (if any) in terms of tackling climate change and other issues of sustainable development?

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