Rio+20 was intended as a follow up on the 1992 Earth Summit, which put in place landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity, as well as commitments on poverty eradication and social justice. Since then, however, global emissions have risen by 48%, 300m hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6bn people. Despite a reduction in poverty, one in six people are malnourished.
With Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron absent, the BRICS nations dominated proceedings.
Brazil artfully – and, according to some delegates, aggressively – pushed through the compromise text, thereby avoiding the conflict and chaos that marked the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. But that also left heads of state and ministers with little but a ceremonial function, wasting an opportunity for political leaders to press for a more ambitious outcome.
The main outcome of the conference is a plan to set sustainable development goals (SDGs), which Brazil described as the “crown jewels” of the conference. But the gems have not yet been chosen, let alone cut, polished and set. Negotiators at Rio were unable to agree on themes, which will now be left to an “open working group” of 30 nations to decide upon by September 2013. Two years later, they will be blended with Millennium Development Goals.
The 49-page document contained many other – mostly loosely defined – steps.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), long a poor relation of other UN organisations, will get a more secure budget, a broader membership and strong powers to initiate scientific research and coordinate global environment strategies. Rio+20 also established a “high-level” forum to coordinate global sustainable development, though its format is still to be defined.
Nations agreed to think about ways to place a higher value on nature, including alternatives to GDP as a measure of wealth that account more for environmental and social factors, and efforts to assess and pay for “environmental services” provided by nature, such as carbon sequestration and habitat protection.
Among the many vague, but potentially promising developments, was a recognition by all 192 governments that “fundamental changes in the way societies consume and produce are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development”. This appeared to mean different things to different people. EU officials suggests it could lead to a shift of taxes so workers pay less and polluters and landfill operators pay more. Hillary Clinton said it should be reflected in the way products are advertised and packaged. All nations “reaffirmed” commitments to phase out harmful fossil fuel subsidies.
Such changes will cost, but nobody wanted to put money on the table, which was cited by the G77 as a major cause of the weak outcome.
Developing countries wanted a $30bn per year fund to help in the transition to sustainability, but in the midst of a financial crisis in Europe, nobody was willing to say how much money they would contribute. Instead, there was a promise to enhance funding, but by how much and by whom were left to future discussions.
There was frustration that Rio+20 did not do more to guarantee the reproductive rights of women or to protect the world’s oceans. A plan to rescue the high seas – which are outside national jurisdictions – was blocked by the US, Nicaragua, Canada and Russia. Instead, leaders say they will do more to prevent over-fishing and ocean acidification. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature called the decision a “deep disappointment”.