I was optimistic before Rio+20 started. Few people were – the media, well, that which bothered to talk about it and make predictions for the UN Conference, all seemed convinced it would produce a lot of rhetoric and little action. I believed it would be more, or at least really, really hoped it would be.
Perhaps I should have listened to the predictions.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development marked two decades since the first Earth Summit, also in Rio, in 1992.
The anniversary event nicknamed Rio+20, was quickly renamed by many as “Rio Minus 20” or “Rio Plus 20 Minus 40,” a depressing statement on the lack of specifics, targets, tangible decisions and ultimately progress to come out of the international gathering.
Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace called it “a failure of epic proportions,” while Jim Leape, Director General of the WWF called it a “colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats.” And it wasn’t just civil society voicing their concerns.
Even Sha Zukang, the Secretary General of Rio+20 concluded that it was “an outcome that makes nobody happy.”
The final statement from Rio, “The Future We Want,” is 49 pages of disappointment. Sure it addresses a number of pressing issues such as the water crisis, climate change, and overfishing, but it resolves to actually do very little to solve these problems. As Mark McDonald from the New York Times points out, the word “reaffirm” is used 60 times in the document’s 283 paragraphs.
In short, it’s filled with the same rhetoric we saw twenty years earlier, with few targets and commitments. Naidoo called the report the “longest suicide note in history.”
Some took solace in agreements made on the sidelines of the official meeting. For instance, Australia and the Maldives agreed to protect large swaths of their boundary waters amid a wider recognition that the world’s oceans are in serious trouble.
Overall though, Rio+20 did little to inspire people around the world that firm action is being taken. Instead, it simply highlighted the lack of vision and leadership of our governments.
The silver lining, however: the events that took place in parallel outside the summit demonstrated the growing capacity of grassroots organizations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments – perhaps the one area of hope we have coming out of this conference.