In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is also commonly called Rio+20 or Rio Earth Summit 2012. It runs from June 20 to June 22nd, 2012.
That Was Then: Summit 1992: Running on Empty....
This Is Now: Summit 2012: Before the Deluge...
The determination by Brazil to avoid a repeat of the 2009 climate summit shambles in Copenhagen lay behind its engineering of a compromise declaration on The Future We Want in advance of the arrival here of world leaders.
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development’s outcome – agreed on Tuesday with three full days left to go – is generally regarded as the minimum that might have been expected, given the preoccupation of many countries with the financial crisis.
Foreign minister Antonio Patriota hailed it as a “victory for the new multilateralism”, saying the negotiations were “not an easy puzzle to solve, [but] the general satisfaction among delegations gives me great confidence that we’ve reached a significant outcome.”
Environment minister Izabella Teixeira said a “considerable portion” of Brazil’s vision was in the document, including reaffirmation of the “Rio Principles” from 1992’s Earth Summit and a transparent process to establish new sustainable development goals.
Conference secretary general Sha Zukang was also upbeat. “We think the text contains a lot of action. And if this action is implemented, with follow-up measures taken, it will indeed make a tremendous difference in generating positive global change,” he said.
The EU has welcomed the deal “in broad terms” while conceding that several of its own ambitions were “not fully achieved”, including specific targets in a number of key areas, despite having “worked hard to secure a positive outcome on several fronts at Rio”.
But as a result of “persistent negotiation effort, the green economy is now understood as an important tool for achieving sustainable development”, it said, adding that the deal also recognised the urgent need to tackle unsustainable production and consumption.
Despite the participation of 114 world leaders, including dozens of heads of state or government, in Rio+20’s three-day “high-level segment”, it is understood that the draft outcome of the conference will not be reopened but rather adopted as it stands.
This includes a compromise text on reproductive health that has been welcomed by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children as a “notable pro-life success” for the Vatican, which was accused by former president Mary Robinson of “undermining women’s health”.
Peggy Clark, leader of the Aspen Institute for Reproductive Health, said: “By blocking any meaningful mention of sexual and reproductive health in the final negotiating text, we are left with an unacceptable reversal of 20 years of progress on women’s rights.”
In their statement on Rio+20, the Irish Catholic bishops made no reference to this but rather emphasised the need for world leaders to “re-examine the current understanding of economic growth” in line with Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.
Justin Kilcullen, director of Trócaire, said the draft outcome “lacks the necessary ambition, urgency and concrete measures that we need to overcome the converging crises of food insecurity, rising economic inequality and the severe risks posed by climate change”. As delegates arrived at the Rio Centro convention centre yesterday morning, they were confronted by a “people’s red line” formed by groups led by younger people angry about the “progress” made here; they billed it as a response to Rio’s “looming failure”.
Just prior to the formal opening of the conference, Brittany Trilford, a 17-year-old blogger from New Zealand who won a video speech contest sponsored by the Tck Tck Tck campaign, achieved her “Date With History” by addressing the delegates.
In a speech that recalled “the girl who silenced the world for five minutes” – then 12-year-old Canadian Severn Suzuki – at the 1992 Earth Summit, Ms Trilford told them: “I am here to fight for my future ... Are you here to save face? Or are you here to save us?”
Later, astronauts and cosmonauts working at the International Space Station delivered a message to Rio+20 and then the podium was given to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Mr Sha to welcome the world leaders.
In an unprecedented move, the Climate Action Network’s “Fossil of the Day” award was given to all 191 of the countries represented at the conference for adopting a “shockingly weak outcome text [that] did not reflect the future we want”.
June 21, 2012 Update:
Rio Fail: Youth Lead Walkout of UN Summit
Slamming leaders' negotiating text as a failure for people and the environment, youth climate leaders stage civil disobedience
Youth climate leaders and their supporters have walked out of the UN climate summit in Rio today to protest the negotiating text that fails to protect the climate. The group staged a "people's plenary" saying the text decided at the conference by world leaders does not represent "the future we want."
Satirizing Rio+20's The Future We Want slogan, members of the groups staged a sit-in and read a mock text called "The Future We Bought." The group then tore the document to shreds saying "the future we want is not found here" and have returned their badges to UN security to make their way towards the People's Summit.
"World leaders have delivered something that fails to move the world forward from the first Rio summit, showing up with empty promises and empty pockets at Rio+20" says Mariana Calderon, a young woman from California. "This text is a polluters plan, and unless leaders start listening to the people, history will remember it as a failure for the people and the planet."
"The Rio text saves political face but fails at protecting people on the frontlines of climate and environmental crises," Calderon explained. "The current text shows no ambition on the most important issues here in Rio - protecting Oceans, ensuring the right to food and water for all, ending handouts to big polluters, addressing climate change or setting goals for the creation of a just and sustainable future for people and the planet."
June 22, 2012 Update:
Nearly 100 heads of state and government gathered over the past three days in efforts to establish "sustainable development goals," a United Nations drive built around economic growth, the environment, and social inclusion. But a lack of consensus over those goals led to an agreement that even some signatories say lacks commitment, specifics, and measurable targets.
A series of much-hyped global summits on environmental policy have now fallen short of expectations, going back at least to a 2009 U.N. meeting in Copenhagen that ended in near-chaos. As a result, many ecologists, activists, and business leaders are coming to the conclusion that progress on environmental issues must be made locally with the private sector, and without the help of international accords.
"The greening of our economies will have to happen without the blessing of the world leaders," said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived early Friday for a quick announcement on U.S.-backed projects in Africa and a series of bilateral meetings with various world leaders, admitted as much. "Governments alone cannot solve all the problems we face," she said, "from climate change to persistent poverty to chronic energy shortages."
Most troubling for many critics of the summit is the fact that leaders arrived in Rio de Janeiro merely to sign a text that their diplomats had all-but sealed beforehand. The text, dubbed "The Future We Want," as such left little room for vision or audacity from presidents and prime ministers, they argue.
"The world we want will not be delivered by leaders who lack courage to come here, sit at the table, and negotiate themselves," said Sharon Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, one of the many non-governmental organizations present for the summit.
"They took no responsibility for imposing the action, the targets, the time lines."
In fact, some heads of state stayed away given the global economic slowdown, worsening debt woes in Europe, and continued violence in the Middle East.
Notable absentees included U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, all of whom attended a gathering of the Group of 20 major economies earlier this week in Mexico.
GOALS DIFFERENT THAN AT '92 SUMMIT
The summit, known as Rio+20, was never expected to generate the sort of landmark accords signed at the 1992 Earth Summit here, which included a treaty on biodiversity and agreements that led to the creation of the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse emissions. Though it attracted more than 50,000 people, many visitors were disillusioned to find that the leaders made few specific commitments on issues ranging from energy to food security to oceans.
Throughout the three-day gathering and week-long negotiations beforehand, the streets of central Rio and around the suburban conference hall that hosted the summit were filled with demonstrations by activists ranging from Indian tribes to environmentalists to anti-nuclear protesters.
Instead of forging legally binding treaties, organizers say, the purpose of this summit was to initiate a process to define a new set of development principles.
But that process, like most global diplomacy, is rife with conflicting interests and tensions between rich countries and the developing world. "The storyline is different from 1992," said Andre Correa do Lago, chief negotiator at the conference for Brazil, which led the final talks on the declaration.
"This summit recognizes more than the others that not one size fits all," he added.
Indeed, many leaders used their time at the podium during the event to note the markedly different needs they are struggling with, especially compared with the developed world. While Brazil, China and other big emerging nations spoke of their need to catch up with rich countries, others like Bolivia, Iran and Cuba unleashed traditional rants against capitalism and conventional definitions of growth.
One point of contention is what many developing countries say is a need for a global fund that could help them pursue development goals. Early talk of a $30 billion fund for that purpose as a possible outcome of the summit foundered well before leaders arrived. A French proposal to tax financial transactions for that purpose also failed.
Clinton, announcing a $20 million grant for clean energy projects in Africa, said a better mechanism is "partnerships among governments, private sector and civil society."
Other countries, the World Bank, and many regional development banks also used the summit as a venue for showcasing similar initiatives. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, for instance, said private investors pledged over $50 billion to boost the use of renewable energy sources worldwide.
Many business leaders at the conference said they are eager to find ways to contribute further. Richard Branson, the British billionaire, in an interview at the "World Green Summit," one of many sideline events, said "there's very little in a document like what they've come up with to accomplish real goals. That leaves it to the rest of us to find ways to move forward."
U.N. Report from Rio on Environment a ‘Suicide Note’
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development has wrapped up in Rio de Janeiro — contentiously so — marking two decades since the first Earth Summit was held, also in Rio, in 1992.
The recent three-day meeting was more easily known as Rio+20, but so few specifics, so few targets, so few tangible decisions came out of the gathering that some participants were derisively calling it “Rio Minus 20,” or “Rio Plus 20 Minus 40.”
“A failure of epic proportions” was the verdict from Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace.
More than a year of “sophisticated U.N. diplomacy has given us nothing more than more poverty, more conflict and more environmental destruction,” said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director for conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
“An outcome that makes nobody happy,” was how Sha Zukang of China put it — and he was the Rio+20 secretary-general.
The final statement from Rio, “The Future We Want,” is 283 paragraphs of kumbaya that “affirm,” “recognize,” “underscore,” “urge” and “acknowledge” seemingly every green initiative and environnmental problem from clean water and creeping deserts to climate change and overfishing. Women’s rights, indigenous peoples, children, tourism, trade unions and the elderly also get shout-outs in the document.
The word “reaffirm” is used 60 times.
As the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in an editorial:
To be sure, all of the great questions facing humanity make an appearance in the document, but without any attempt at a binding agreement. The Rio+20 conference, which really should have provided a new spark, has instead shined the spotlight on global timidity. Postpone, consider, examine: Even the conference motto — “The Future We Want” — sounds like an insult. If this is the future we want, then good night.
If all countries are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, if they no longer want to discuss what needs to be discussed . . . then the dikes are open. There is no need anymore for a conference of 50,000 attendees. Resolutions that are so wishy-washy can be interpreted by every member state as they wish. No one needs Rio.
Mr. Naidoo called the final report the “longest suicide note in history.” Jim Leape, director general of the wildlife fund, said it was “a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats.”
One of the few things the summit meeting did actually decide: the establishment of “a universal intergovernmental high level political forum” to replace another U.N. commission.
The German tabloid Bild wrote: “Shame on you summit participants!”
“We’ve sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success,” said Martin Khor of the U.N. Committee on Development Policy.
The organizers and some activists took some solace in agreements and pledges being made on the sidelines of the official meeting. Australia and the Maldives are moving to protect large swaths of their boundary waters, for example, amid a wider recognition that the world’s oceans are in trouble from overfishing, acidification and pollution.
The oceanographer Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence with National Geographic, said she heard from a fellow panelist in Rio that “we have to get over the idea that the ocean is too big to fail.”
Otherwise, though, Ms. Earle said, “Concerning oceans, there is reason to suggest that the outcomes could be characterized as Rio+20 minus 40.”
Both environmental activists and government negotiators seemed to agree that the Rio summit was perhaps too big to succeed, with its 188 government negotiators and tens of thousands of panelists, observers and attendees.
(Some of the more colorful moments were described by our colleagues on the Green blog, and on Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin looks at an initiative on sustainable energy led by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations.)
“I think the expectation that there is one document or one approach that can solve one of the major questions of our time — how do you maintain economic growth and protect the environment? — there’s not one paper that can do that,” said Kerri-Ann Jones, U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
In an op-ed in The International Herald Tribune, two Rio attendees wrote that government negotiators “spent months negotiating a document that ended up being watered down almost to the point of worthlessness because of their lack of vision and their governments’ lack of leadership.”
“But as presidents of two major environmental groups who attended the Earth Summit, we disagree that Rio+20 was a failure,” said Frances G. Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice.
A condensed excerpt from their piece:
We can do this ourselves.
We saw in the myriad Rio+20-related announcements from countries, communities and companies around the globe that they were taking action themselves — irrespective of any United Nations document.
We heard it from the young people who spoke at Rio+20 — sometimes through tears and with cracking voices — about the fears they have for the world we’re leaving for them.
The fact that 50,000 people came to Rio and that hundreds of thousands more participated virtually through technologies like YouTube and Twitter made that loud and clear. The incredible energy and the enthusiasm they demonstrated is only a hint of what individuals can do.
As our colleagues Simon Romero and John Broder wrote from Rio, even if the meeting laid out no enforceable goals or specific road maps, it perhaps signaled “a new assertiveness by developing nations in international forums and the growing capacity of grass-roots organizations and corporations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments.”
Ms. Earle, the National Geographic explorer, was somewhat heartened that the summit meeting had again put a spotlight, if only briefly, on environmental issues that have perhaps been overlooked, diminished or pushed aside due to the world economic malaise and calls for government austerity.
We’d love to know your thoughts about Rio+20, and also about sustainability, green initiatives and the most pressing ecological issues. Are large-scale gatherings like Rio worth the time, the cost and the carbon footprint? Is sustainable development even possible, given the current state of the world economy? Should developing countries be held to less stringent rules on greenhouse emissions, for example, than developed economies? Think globally, act locally — for everyday folks is this the best way forward?