Remarks on Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development
Special Envoy for Climate Change
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us. We’re pleased today to have Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern and Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, here to discuss the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. We’re going to start with a brief opening from Special Envoy Stern and then proceed to your questions. A reminder that this call is on the record, and with that, we’ll begin with Special Envoy Stern.
MR. STERN: First of all, I want to just apologize for keeping you all waiting, as always happens when – in these kind of large negotiating sessions, things get kind of scrambled. So I apologize for that and I’ll also apologize because I’ve got a certain period of time, so I will go first. Kerri-Ann Jones will follow up after I need to leave. Let me just give you a very quick high-level and then turn it over for questions, particularly given our time.
Broadly speaking, I think we see Rio as intended to catalyze renewed high-level focus on sustainable development by all the world’s countries, as well as entrepreneurs, researchers, civil society, and so forth, with the aim of spurring concrete action going forward.
For the United States, development is a big issue. The President and the Secretary of State have elevated it, made it one of the three pillars of our foreign, national security policy, together with defense and diplomacy. The Secretary of State frequently speaks of the three Ds and traveled to Busan for the aid effectiveness conference that has made development a major priority in the context of the reorganization process that’s State’s so-called QDDR. And development is profoundly in the interests of our economy and our national security, as well as, obviously, the interests of people around the world. But it is – it makes business sense for the United States and it makes national security sense.
The last thing I would say is that, given the inevitable pressure on resources of all kinds that we see now around the world, whether it’s water, oceans, pressures on food, and so forth, really the only kind of development that can occur in the 21st century and ensure growing economies, not only for this generation for us but for our kids, is broad-based, sustainable development. It falls upon all of us to develop and use resources efficiently, creatively, and wisely.
I’ve always liked the statement from the Brundtland Report in 1987 that defines sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. So let me stop there and I’ll take any questions.
MODERATOR: Operator, we’re ready for questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1. To withdraw your question, press * then 2. Once again, to ask a question, please press * then 1. One moment, please, for the first question.
Our first question comes from Richard Ingham with AFP. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Stern. We’ve met several times before at the climate change talks. What’s your appreciation of the state of play when it comes to the outcomes document? And my second question is: why isn’t President Obama coming here if you say that development belongs alongside defense and diplomacy as one of the cornerstones of your foreign strategy?
MR. STERN: Well, let me take the first question first. There are a number of issues in play on the outcome document. I think the text is still in the range of 80 or so pages. I think it’s going to end up being a fairly long text in the end, but there are lively discussions still going on with respect to the institutional side of things – what, if anything, is done with respect to strengthening UNEP. There’s some further discussions about how sustainable development will be handled going forward within the UN system. There have been discussions about proposals to establish a process for (inaudible) sustainable development goals. There has been discussion about the so-called green economy. There is a section of this which goes through a broad range of different sectoral or substantive issues, whether it’s food or water or energy, oceans, biodiversity, et cetera, et cetera. And then there’s a lot of discussion regarding so-called means of implementation.
And I would say that there has been progress in these first few days of the so-called PrepCom, but there is still a lot of work to be done. As a formal matter – and I think not only as a formal matter, I think as a formal matter or in any – in any definition, the PrepCom session ends at the end of today or late tonight, whenever it may be, and starting tomorrow, the presidency of this conference, Brazil, will be in the lead. And I expect that there – the discussions will continue probably in a somewhat different style, but that remains to be seen.
I don’t have any other comment with respect to President Obama. The Secretary of State is coming at a very high level. There are many, many countries that are represented at the head-of-state level and many, many countries that are represented at a senior level comparable to the Secretary of State. I don’t have any other comment on that.
I’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Gustavo Chacra from O Estado, the Sao Paulo newspaper. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Speaking on Obama, even though you’re sending Ms. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, it’s still not good sign not sending the President of the United States since more than a hundred heads of states will be there. So it looks that the United States is among the countries that don’t think that’s as important as it is, the Rio+20. Why don’t send the President as more than a hundred countries are doing? Why just the Secretary of State?
MR. STERN: Well, I just – I guess I just have to disagree. With respect to the priority that development has and has had in the United States, not just the elevation of it that I’ve mentioned, but the United States is the biggest development donor in the world. We have enormously important and enormously high-profile efforts going on with respect to health and food and other issues.
There was a – I think a potentially landmark announcement that was made just yesterday by the Secretary of State, together with Ethiopia, India, and a whole number of other countries, to put in place an effort to eliminate preventable childhood deaths in a decade.
I mean, it goes on and on. So I can’t – look, I am not able to speak to the President’s schedule, but we are coming at a level which is quite comparable to a great many other countries. And I hear the question, but I don’t have anything else to add to it.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Yeah, if I could add something on this one, I – this is Kerri-Ann Jones – I would like to just make the point that one of the things we really want to see coming out of Rio is new energy for action. And President Obama, in many of the things and policies he’s done – has done is putting a lot of action into the whole sustainable development agenda. And Todd has pointed that out in the international arena, but we’re also doing many things domestically to encourage sustainable development. We think this is about action, and we feel we have a very high-level delegation and are coming to really move forward this process of catalyzing sustainable development. And we see it as both a national interest and an international interest.
MODERATOR: Operator, next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jo Biddle with AFP. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Oh, good afternoon. Thank you for taking the call. Could you please describe what you see as the biggest stumbling block to getting a communique together at the moment?
MR. STERN: Well, thanks for the question. I never – I make a practice of not trying to handicap what’s the biggest or the worst or the best, or what chances are and that kind of thing, which – I do always get asked those kinds of questions. I – so I don’t want to put my finger on one issue that is a stumbling block. All of the issues that I mentioned are issues that are – that are still the subject of live and lively debate, and I just – I appreciate the question, but it’s – I really don’t want to get into a – into that kind of discussion about the negotiations. There’s still a lot to be wrestled with.
MODERATOR: Operator, I think we have time for maybe one more question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Valerie Volcovici with Reuters. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi, Todd. This is Valerie Volcovici from Reuters. I was just wondering if the issue of common but differentiated responsibilities, which has been such a permanent issue in the climate talks – if this is something that’s spilling over again into these talks. And I guess now 20 years later after the first Rio summit, is “common but differentiated” still, from your point of view, something that needs to be in the text and recognized?
MR. STERN: Thanks, Valerie. There are certainly – the phrase “common but differentiated” is certainly sprinkled through this text in any number of places, and we have fairly strong and developed views about that idea in general. I am extremely familiar with it from the climate context. And what we have been very firm about in that context is that the idea, the phrase taken to mean a firewall between developed and developing countries, is completely unacceptable to us. If it ever made sense, it doesn’t make sense anymore in the context of a world that is so dynamically and rapidly evolving, and where some of the biggest economies and biggest users of resources -- in the climate change world, biggest producer of greenhouse gases -- and so forth, is on the developing country side of the line.
That is not to say that everybody is supposed to or is expected to do the same thing. It’s quite, quite fine to recognize that the efforts of countries need to be consistent with their own national circumstances and priorities and so forth. But the notion is rather more of a continuum, if you will – differentiated to be sure, but across a continuum of effort, which can be differentiated within OECD countries, differentiation within developing countries, and so forth, not a firewall.
Now in the sustainable development context – as I said, the phrase is there. It comes up. And we are working on the paragraphs where it comes up in various ways. But in addition to the comments that I was just making in the climate arena, let me also remind you that sustainable development is not at all just about the environment, and this conference is not an environmental conference. This conference is a development conference. And development is based on three pillars – economic, social, and environmental. And there are many areas of life within the world of those three pillars where differentiation of any kind doesn’t really make sense.
So we do think that the phrase is one that can only be looked at in a way that is consistent with, as I said, a rapidly evolving and changing world. And stay tuned about exactly what happens in the document.
MODERATOR: Operator, Special Envoy Stern has to head off to another engagement, but if we have maybe one last question in queue that Dr. Jones can help us with, that would be great.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Flavia Barbosa with O Globo newspaper, a Brazilian newspaper. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for taking the call. I just wanted to ask if – is the U.S. opposing proposals by developing countries that are calling for the provision of new financial resources to support the outcomes of the Rio+20, including a $30 billion sustainable development fund? So how is the U.S. standing on this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Thank you for that question. I think I have to go back to sort of where we were starting to describe our expectations from this conference. This is about mobilizing actions at the community, state, and nation level. We don’t think there is any one country or any one fund that can solve all these problems. We think that this is about some of the partnerships that we have seen in place around the world, some of the ones that are happening in cities and locally.
So I don’t think that we are looking for any one fund to come out of this whatsoever. It’s really about how nations come together, and they’re sharing their experiences and they’re trying to take on the challenges together, looking to innovative ways to get at things. I mean, we really see this as a way to reconfirm our commitment to sustainable development, highlight actions at home and abroad, and work with all the countries there to share best practices and reach out to all of our citizens, empower women, and make sure that youth are engaged in a way that we can make sure the next generation has a very sustainable future.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, we don’t have time for any more questions, but I wanted to give Dr. Jones the opportunity if you had, Dr. Jones, any concluding comments that you wanted to add, other than what you’ve already said, please feel free to go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JONES: Thank you. I just think what I was answering in that last question was sort of highlighting our expectations. We’re looking forward to this conference. We are committed to sustainable development and have been for a long time, and we do think this is a great opportunity for the world to think about what are the actions we need to take within our own countries and how can we learn from each other and go forward.
So thank you all for your interest in this, and I guess I’ll see some of you there in Rio.
MODERATOR: Thank you to both of our speakers and thank you to all of you for joining us on today’s call.