The Rio + 20 Summit drew nearly 50,000 participants, including more than 100 governmental representatives, a large number of non-governmental organizations, and a significant corporate presence. As I mentioned in my last post, the preparatory talks to the conference were stymied by national interests and lacked focus toward a larger, global perspective. In an attempt to move discussions forward, prior to the conference host country Brazil prepared a compromise text that placed less emphasis on a green economy and lacked commitments by participants. As a result, the conference began with draft text that was criticized as being weak.
While many actors, including the United Nations Environment Program, called for a final agreement with specific targets, Rio + 20’s final agreement, called “The Future We Want,” is largely without teeth. The agreement lacks enforceable commitments on all biodiversity, poverty elimination, and social equity issues. For example, specific to oceans and seas, language from the agreement calls for “support to initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources. In this regard, we reiterate the need to work collectively to prevent further ocean acidification, as well as enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems . . .We commit to intensify our efforts to meet the 2015 target as agreed to in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation to maintain or restore stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis.” In effect, the nearly 50 page agreement lacks any firm sustainable development goals but resolves to establish an intergovernmental process to develop goals based on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.
Outside of formal political negotiations, there were numerous side agreements crafted and unveiled by the large corporate presence at the conference, as well as other partnerships. Corporate promises earned much media attention, including Microsoft’s announcement that it would become carbon-neutral by 2013. In another example, Femsa, a Latin American soft-drink bottler, said it would procure 85% of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable energy. And a group of development banks, led by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and others, will provide more than $175 billion to support sustainable transport in developing countries, including promoting public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities. Ban Ki-moon announced more than 100 commitments had been taken by governments and companies under his Sustainable Energy For All initiative. Specifically, $50 billion was committed to objectives like doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030. In sum, the United Nations reported nearly 700 voluntary commitments by stakeholders represented at the conference.
While these commitments may be viewed as a silver lining to the Rio + 20 conference, overall the conference lacked global leadership to direct meaningful change that sets the world on a path of true sustainable development. Greenpeace said the gathering was a “failure of epic proportions.” David Suzuki, a geneticist and environmental activist, may have said it best in an interview with Democracy Now, “A meeting like this is doomed to fail because we haven’t left our vested interests outside the door and come together as a single species and agreed what the fundamental needs are for all of humanity. So we’re going to sacrifice the air, the water, the biodiversity all in the sake of human political and economic interest.”
Emily is a Senior Research Analyst with Portfolio 21 Investments. She has 9 years of experience in the environmental field.