Twenty years of international deliberations on sustainable development reaches another peak in 2012 during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. However, with every review of the implementation of the ambitious Agenda 21, it becomes more difficult to reignite the “spirit of Rio” and in this paper I argue that one contributing factor is the inability to find a way to vertically integrate institutions and other actors across governance levels. The paper analyzes this long deliberation process and its normative outcome with respect to its multi-levelness and approach to vertical integration. It concludes that both the first Earth Summit in Rio 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development expressed high ambitions for dynamic interaction between governance at different levels, both in the deliberation and implementation stages. Yet, the actual number of practical links between levels could have been much higher and the references to vertical linkages in the conference process decreased over time. The preparations for Rio+20 continue this downward trend despite a widespread recognition that the need for coherence and integration were major motivational factors for Rio+20. The prospects for the process to stimulate the forming of coalitions of the willing that could bring closer vertical integration and implement multi-level governance are thereby limited.