Twenty years ago, leaders and representatives of over 170 countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth Summit. In Rio ‘a bold new vision’ for sustainable development, embodied in Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles, was forged. Since then, development has ploughed forward but its sustainability has been questionable. This June, world leaders returned to Brazil for the Rio+20 ‘follow up’ conference with the aim of charting a new pathway forward for a more sustainable century.

Expectations of UN environment conferences have admittedly been dampened in the past 20 years but even still, most did not anticipate the anti-climax that was Rio+20. Before even a single world leader had touched down in Rio, delegates negotiating on their behalf had presented the conference ‘outcome’ text entitled ‘The Future We Want’. The 49-page document, pieced together by the Brazilian hosts after months of difficult negotiations, represented what was widely acknowledged as a ‘compromise text’.

‘The Future We Want’ purports to set out a common vision for sustainable development. Focusing on the global shift to a ‘green economy’, it introduces the concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to complement the Millennium Development Goals, and outlines the need to mobilise financing for sustainable development and promote sustainable consumption and production. In particular, it reaffirms commitments to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. The document also establishes a secure budget, a broader membership and strong powers to initiate scientific research for United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and encourages companies to place a higher value on nature by considering the environment within their financial reporting.

Finalised in the early hours of Tuesday morning, a full day before the conference proper began, the text that emerged was dominated by the ‘softened language’ of the middleground and lacked the all-important firm commitments and figures that tie countries to their promises. As conference participants fervently combed through the text on the eve of the conference opening, other major criticisms that emerged were its failure to guarantee the reproductive rights of women and to layout a rescue plan for the oceans. Although the text provided for the strengthening of UNEP, many countries had been lobbying for a full upgrade of the agency to give it equal status with other UN bodies.

In reaction to the text, Greenpeace typically pulled no punches, immediately branding the document an ‘epic failure’ that would, “cook the planet, empty the oceans and wreck the rain forests”. Meanwhile the Major Group for Children and Youth were equally direct, warning leaders, “If these sheets of paper are our common future, then you have sold our fate and subsidised our common destruction.”

The conference therefore began with the strange knowledge that the compromise outcome was all but fixed, making this gathering of world leaders less like an epic opportunity and more an international photo call. EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, France’s Francois Hollande, China’s Wen Jiabao and India’s Manmohan Singh were among the premiers who took to the UN podium on a rolling basis over the three days of the conference. Common ground and compromise were shared motifs peppering the speeches of what sometimes seemed like a conveyor belt of world leaders. Barroso acknowledged, “None of us has achieved in full what was wanted initially. But we have all worked together to develop common ground. Let me reassure you that the EU will continue to strive for more ambitious actions that our planet and its people require.”

Ireland, which negotiates as part of the EU bloc, was represented at the conference by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. The Minister noted that the text could have been more ambitious in relation to the SDGs but added that the ‘broad agreement’ would chart a path for progress on critical areas. He particularly welcomed the agreement’s “strong commitment to ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for present and future generations.”

There was a flurry of media excitement with the arrival of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who said that the outcome document marked a ‘real advance’ forward for sustainable development and called on the world to be ‘pragmatic, but also optimistic’. Meanwhile, Bovilian President, Evo Morales was typically rousing, warning against a green capitalism “that converts every tree, every plant, every drop of water and every natural being into a commodity.”

In spite of the foregone conclusion, throughout the event NGOs and activists continued to lobby their governments for stronger language, more firm commitments, and stirred up protest with colourful chants and demonstrations. Saba Loftus from Cork, who had been following preparatory negotiations for the conference since 2010 as a representative of the Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), noted, “The agenda put forward at the original Rio conference 20 years ago – Agenda 21 – was not strengthened here, it was actually weakened. It’s our future that world leaders are playing with and they obviously don’t care about it. That’s why we’re here – to make sure change happens.”

On the other hand, Martina Bianchini of Dow Chemical and Chair of International Chamber of Commerce Green Economy Task Force praised the outcome and the process, “We welcome the outcome document and we applaud the multilateral approach to the dialogue – as we know, economies across the world are interconnected. This summit has recognised that business plays a vital role in achieving sustainable development”.

In spite of the dissatisfaction of civil society, for the most part, the conference rolled lazily towards its undramatic conclusion. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon assured that the text would guide the world on to a more sustainable path but warned that words must be matched by actions. Echoing the thoughts of many leaving the soon-to-be deserted conference centre on the final evening, he noted, “The road ahead is long and hard.”

Mary Robinson, attending the conference as an ‘Elder’ – a member of the group of the world leaders working for peace and human rights – criticised the text for ‘backsliding’ on certain issues, particularly its failure to mention women’s reproductive rights. She added however, a more hopeful conclusion, “The UN has its drawbacks but it is the global way in which we move forward. It’s a ‘not great’ text but it’s the text we will work with. We have an energised community, a community that’s angry and energised – maybe that will help us to hold governments and institutions to account for more progress.”


Read more:

The Future We Want (Rio+20 outcome document)

The People’s Summit Final Declaration


Aoife O’Grady is an Irish, Brussels-based journalist focusing on environmental issues.




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