This past week, delegates from 193 countries, as well as thousands of participants from NGOs and other parties came together for the ‘Rio +20’ earth summit. Overall the summit was to focus on two major themes – the institution of a green economy, and developing a framework for sustainable development and poverty eradication. Sadly, while it is not without a silver lining, most would not describe the event as a success.
To give some context, the name ‘Rio + 20’ comes from the previous Earth Summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, 20 years ago. At Rio 1992, over 130 nations signed a Convention on Climate Change and a Convention on Biodiversity. The delegates also reached an agreement for developing global sustainability, well into the twenty-first century. The 130 countries also accepted the Rio Declaration, which is a non-binding statement on the principles for environmental policy. For it’s time, this was an unprecedented success for the environment.
As for Rio + 20, success appears subjective. Global leaders tout success, while the consultative NGOs, also in attendance, say otherwise. Sha Zukang, head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, at the end stated, "This is an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy." As noted by the associated press, beyond a commitment by the parties for sustainable development, mostly this was a meeting to decide to have more meetings.
Some of the biggest issues activists wanted to see resolved include a call to end subsidies for fossil fuels, protection for the sinking small island developing states, and some words on how nations agree to protect the high seas areas that fall outside any national jurisdiction. Additionally, the highly visible absence of Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, Angela Merkel and David Cameron did not help things. These are respectively the heads of state of the US, Canada, Germany and the UK – four of the top ten polluters in the world.
The delegates did agree on a document that focuses primarily on sustainable development. They say that considering the current global economic turmoil, any agreement is a success. Sha Zukang summed up the perspective of larger country parties assuring that governments and private sector parties have come to at least some sort of an agreement and that they are committed to concrete implementation of sustainable development protocols. The conference did also result in nearly 700 promises and advances by countries, companies and other organizations, in total worth about $500 billion, if actually followed through. Considering that in most similar environmental conferences significantly less is accomplished, this shows that Rio+20 is not without a silver lining.
While we wound up achieving far less than we wanted at Rio+20, it did not end without some hope. Considering the current global economic climate, perhaps this was just a bad time to expect the parties, most of whom are already tightening their financial belts, to make expensive looking commitments.