The expectations for this event were big. 20 years have passed since the earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where some historic decisions regarding the greenhouse emissions were taken. Now the hopes were that the new Rio+20 conference would outline the new plan for sustainable development and reducing poverty within the next 20 years.
But was it worth the waiting? Ban Ki Moon declared this forum "a once in a lifetime opportunity to make real progress toward a sustainable economy for the future". Delegates from more than 190 countries took part in the 3 day long forum that finished last weekend. And also many NGOs and private entrepreneurs. The leaders of the biggest developing economies were also there - China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa too. But Obama, Cameron and Merkel only sent their envoys to represent them, confirming the concerns that the ecologic meeting would be overshadowed by the crisis in the Euro zone, the US presidential election and the Arab spring.
Actually if we look at the larger picture, Rio+20 may not look like such a complicated goal. Sustainable development means using natural resources in a way that would not exceed nature's capabilities to cope with their recovery. If the world economy is adjusted to this goal, what remains is to put the necessary measures into an official document and subscribe to it. Sounds easy... but it isn't. There are all sorts of obstacles at every step along that road.
Things have changed somewhat since the 90s when everyone used to talk about ecology. Now it is more about sustainable development. The term gradually became mainstream exactly after the 1992 summit in Rio. And simply put, it means achieving a balance between environment, economy and social development. But did Rio+20 meet the big expectations? Or were the predictions that this conference would only name the global ecological problems without finding solutions for them, proven true?
Long before the actual meeting, the negotiators had agreed upon a text that would generally call for finding a more sustainable road for development. The Brazilian foreign minister sounded very optimistic because of that, stating that "The spirit of Rio has been preserved even after 20 years. We have achieved a very good result". But meanwhile, experts point out that this agreement is too timid. Some have even called it "an epic failure". While others (like official China) are calling it "positive and balanced". In reality, the biggest problem with this final document is that it contains no specific commitments. Only a lot of wishful language, but few real promises about anything. It hardly looks like a document that would lead anywhere when you read it more closely, despite its grandiose title, The Future We Want.
The EU, and especially its rotational chairing country, Denmark, were particularly disappointed. Their minister of the environment Ida Auken said that the EU would have liked to see far more ambitious targets. And the reason for the failure to achieve a satisfactory agreement could be that the developing countries from the G-77 group and the developed countries never managed to achieve consensus. Both sides are still at the bargaining stage and they haven't reached the point that would match their interests in the best way. The developing world claims that the promised 100 billion dollars haven't been paid, while the developed world wants to be assured that these funds would be used in real sustainable projects, as opposed to being stolen by corrupt dictators. So there is no compromise at this point. In this sense, Rio+20 is more like a process, not just a set date. A process that goes too slowly, and real progress is yet to be seen. Some may argue that what is more important is to walk into the right direction, not to try to meet deadlines for their own sake. And maybe this is true. But climate change would not wait for a few politicians to come to a conclusion.
UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon couldn't hide his disappointment: "Nature does not wait. Nature does not negotiate with human beings." The UN acknowledges that the summit has failed to meet its goals.
The environmental organisations are also disillusioned with many aspects of the agreement, because in its large part it only re-confirms the old commitments that the countries had already made. For example, instead of insisting that the governments should stop subsidising fossil fuels, the final version of the text only mentions the prior agreements that fossil fuels should be gradually brought out of use as "harmful and inefficient". But without even the vaguest deadline for that. It's not like they wouldn't like to see the end of these subsidies, especially of those that are being paid directly to the fossil fuel producers. Even before 2009 the G-20 countries made such a promise, but there was no result. Besides, they would like to devise a series of goals and measures for sustainable development that would make the countries respect certain ecological limits that should never be crossed. A lot of diplomatic work is being done on the subject, granted, and we are witnessing lots of talks on the matter, but at the end of the day nothing specific comes out of it.
The document uses some strong language, calling for "urgent actions" regarding the production and consumption that are unsustainable, but it does not give any details or a schedule as to how these goals should be achieved. And neither does it formulate clear recommendations how to transform the global economy into a "greener" economy. For example the agreement states that "clear goals for sustainable development" should be set, but nothing in the entire text suggests what those goals exactly should be. It talks about "strengthening" the UN environmental program (as France insisted), but again no specifics.
A new element that is mentioned in the document is introducing a stricter oversight of maritime ecology, including the creation of protected sea zones in international waters, and increasing the efforts against illegal fishing. But the text only vaguely urges the big corporations to be "more responsible" and to be mindful about their impact on ecology, but they are in no way compelled to do so with any official measures. Which leaves matters solely to ethics. And somehow I doubt the invisible hand of the free market would respond to that.
Although as a whole the Rio+20 agreement is being described as a positive step forward, for many people this conference was a missed opportunity to do a real change in global development. The document shows that the talks in Rio were lacking the firepower that was necessary for tackling the critical situation the world is qucikly heading towards. The developed countries have failed time and time again to make the difference that they are fully capable of. Now they have to realise the fact that, until we roll up the sleeves and start working hard to amend our planet, we would only be sweeping the dirt under the rug and postponing the problem for a later time, only to be facing it again with increased severity in the future.
Sadly, I think at the moment the world's governments and the geopolitical context of the time do not generate the same energy and inspiration that they had at the Rio meeting 20 years ago. But this new conference at least contributed a tad for raising awareness about the problem, which is a small thing but still more than nothing. I at least hope Rio+20 has had some, if minor effect on the young people who have found an outlet for sharing their ideas for the future, and possibly a platform to find new partners from all over the world. What is different now, compared to two decades ago, is the presence of the social networks. They have an enormous potential to spread the word overnight, and not just on the issue of environment. They allow the development of a truly global society, not formed on geographical principles any more, but rather ideological. In the sense of sharing ideas. So the "positive spirit" of the Rio+20 message that was spread throughout so many people in various corners of the world, should not go to waste, and it must have some impact, if not a decisive effect on the governments' decisions.