The minus of Rio+20

The Minus of Rio+20

The final days of the Rio+20 Conference were the culmination of years of pre-negotiations and expectations among tens of thousands of diverse leaders representing billions of people and enterprises all over the world. Included was representation of the future generations of humankind, and hundreds of millions of other species, many of which have yet to be discovered.

The Conference goals were to reduce poverty, advance social equity, and ensure environmental protection, including renewable energy use, on an increasingly crowded planet.

Though expected, it was discouraging that there was more talk than action about the rather weak pre-negotiated document. Everyone put in their final two cents as government leaders gave it the rubber stamp with some omissions and edits. There were high hopes that there would be more input to strengthen the outcome.

See the final 53-page final “Future We Want” outcome document here.

The meetings that led up to the meetings
The three days of meetings of the third Preparatory Committee began on June 13 when government representatives negotiated documents to be adopted during the final high-level meetings of June 20-22. During this time, an additional 500 side events were held by governments, UN Major Groups, organizations within the UN system, and other international organizations. In between were the Dialogue Days from June 16 –19, with another hundred meetings. Parallel to all of the above were dozens of conferences, award shows, protests and demonstrations, dinners, and private receptions by business groups, governments, corporations, public-private partnerships, womens groups, environmental groups, ngos and activists.

All in all, a unified and aggressive outcome to save the world was a tall order. The thick fog that hung over the dramatic landscape and seascape of Rio de Janeiro, coupled with the gridlock of busses and cars, came to symbolize the event.

Lost at sea
Pushing for protection of our oceans was the High Seas Alliance. The group worked around the clock seeking agreements in the final outcome document that would determine the fate of vast areas of the ocean beyond jurisdiction, now a no-mans-land that is free for the taking, and ravaged by destructive fishing techniques, dumping and mining.

Hopes were dashed upon discovery early on June 19 that a 3 a.m. coup by a coalition of the US and Venezuela, helped by Canada, Russia and Japan, vetoed text in the final document for a UN treaty to protect the high seas and create an international network of marine protected areas, including the Arctic Ocean. On Tuesday the Secretary-General of Rio+20, Sha Zukang, confirmed that there would be no further negotiations on that particular text which signaled the continuation of mining and oil extraction to those countries staking their claim.

The loss was both a disappointment and a shock after being named among top priorities through public pre-voting and by experts at the Sustainable Development Dialogue on Oceans. The Dialogues, moderated by Phillipe Cousteau, included his uncle Dr. Jean-Michel Cousteau, President of Ocean Futures Society, and Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, whose speech can be viewed here.

In a final statement issued by the High Seas Alliance, Sue Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group said, “We came to Rio with high expectations for action to address the ocean crisis. It would be a mistake to call Rio a failure, but for a once-in-a-decade meeting with so much at stake, it was a far cry from a success.”

Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean said, “What I have seen at this summit has utterly appalled me. I have recently been observing seamounts in the southern Indian Ocean devastated by trawlers. These ecosystems take thousands of years to develop. I wish the negotiators here could witness what I have seen.”

Hope that the tide will turn
Though there was a net loss to oceans, the final Rio+20 outcome document does include a commitment to reduce marine pollution from land-based sources, especially plastics, as well as persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and nitrogen-based compounds. It also includes a commitment to take action on ocean acidification, fishing subsidies and overfishing.

Some advocates looked at the bright side and felt positive that for the first time attention had focused on this 71 percent of our planet’s surface long considered a grab bag and universal sewer. “Oceans are on the record in a way that they weren’t 20 years ago – and we will hold governments to this record,” said Charlotte Smith of Oceans Inc. Also cited was World Bank’s commitment to the Global Partnership for Oceans.

Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition said, “Rio+20 has shown less backbone than your average cnidarian [jelly fish] but if we use this to take the action clearly indicated then progress will have been made.”

Leila Monroe, an ocean conservation attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke also of a silver lining, saying that Rio+20 was “a hugely valuable gathering of the smartest minds in business, law, and policy.”

Public protest
Though all participants at Rio+20 were encouraged in the media and at the side events to register voluntary commitments for sustainable development, this did not come close to satiating the public for input.

A protest at the Rio Centro led by activists including founder and CSRwire contributing writer, Bill McKibben, called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. On the beach at Copacabana, a two-hour traffic jam away, a giant trillion-dollar bill had been unfurled to represent the trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies to “polluters” that could otherwise be used for clean energy and sustainable development. In the weeks leading up to Rio+20, it seemed unlikely that fossil fuel subsidies would enter into the negotiations, but massive public outcry including a viral petition to world leaders signed by over a million people, and a star-studded, record-breaking twitterstorm pushed the issue.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon took a meeting on the last day with representatives of the Peoples Summit who delivered a rejection letter and harsh criticism against the Rio+20 final document. Demonstrations are planned to continue throughout the weekend.

Later, hundreds of civil society members, led by members of the movement and youth organizations, decided that their message was “Walk Out, Not Sell Out!” and they officially walked out of the Rio+20 negotiations. The protesters rallied through the stale Rio Centro halls shouting, “The Future We Want is not here!” Handing in their badges, many of them decided that the People’s Summit is where they want to shape the plans for the future.

Attention span waned on final day
During the final three days at Rio Centro Media Center, in between press conferences, the media sat at rows of tables under large screens that streamed the high-level meetings live. One after another, heads of state read prepared statements without much discussion. Many of the side events were in a similar format, with panelists reading statements, including one where a speaker read in monotone directly from his iPhone for nearly half an hour. Celebrity deliveries were a welcome reprieve, including one about high seas by Richard Branson. Power plugs in the media center were claimed early, denying many reporters a computer connection, leaving little distraction as the hours wore on and nothing much happened in regard to the final outcome.

Conversations often led to expressions of frustration about how trying to save the world was not only remarkably discouraging, but incredibly boring.

The plus of Rio +20
On the plus side, relationships were formed, public private partnerships forged and many important issues were spotlighted for the world to see.

Voluntary commitments from countries and companies resulted in a pledge of $513 billion toward efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels, conserve water and encourage wider use of renewable energy. Businesses and investors committed more than $50 billion to Sustainable Energy for All.

Also promising were advances among local authorities. Four dozen of the world’s largest cities have taken steps to cut 248 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, showcasing goodwill and cooperation from business where the innovations come from.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff kept a positive spin on Rio+20. “I am convinced that this Conference will have the effect of bringing about sweeping change,” she said in her concluding remarks.

In the closing ceremony, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “The speeches are over. Now the work begins.”

In her concluding remarks Henrietta Elizabeth Thompson, Co-Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, reminded everyone that Martin Luther King spoke not of the nightmare, but of the dream.

Corporate Sustainability Leaders Convene at Rio+20

In this first of a series of dispatches from Rio+20, CSRwire’s Martha Shaw reports on the Corporate Sustainability Forum.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (June 19, 2012/CSRwire) – Hundreds of side events around the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) are taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this week with an estimated 60,000 guests, including delegates, heads of state, government leaders, CEOs, sustainability directors, students, researchers, political decision-makers, non-profit organizations, media, event support teams and spirited activists. Their hope: eradicating poverty, curtailing environmental destruction and ending social injustice.

The UN Global Compact, which establishes an alliance between the UN and the private sector, now has 10,000 corporate members, with 7,000 of them active.The United Nations Global Compact’s Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum: Innovation and Collaboration for the Future We Want was one of them. It wrapped up on Monday, just days before the official Rio+20, known as the Earth Summit, convenes.

Progress, Problems Noted, Role For Private Sector
Queen Silvia of Sweden addressed the UNGC closing gathering, reflecting on the progress since the first Earth Summit in1992. She pointed out that in many countries, the air quality in cities has improved, as has the water quality of rivers and lakes. She also reminded the group that there are still many problems, including biodiversity and the stability of our climate, and that we must turn into opportunities. “This is something business is good at,” she said. “Because the private sector is focused on innovation and change, there is great potential for business to lead the way.”

Other speakers agreed that we can’t wait for governments to get it right and that corporations focusing on the long-term fate of our planet should be commended.

UN Global Compact

The UNGC’s Corporate Sustainability Forum was held in cooperation with the Rio+20 Secretariat, the UN System and the Global Compact Local Network Brazil in the days leading up to Rio+20 to bring greater scale and quality to corporate sustainability practices.

As a showcase for innovation and collaboration, the Forum was designed to be a launching ground for widespread action, representing business as well as investors, governments, local authorities, civil society and UN entities. “We are of course delighted that over 3000 people have come here for three days of hard work in 120 sessions on six tracks,” said Georg Kell. “Many of the solutions we need already exist, and we have demonstrated that on a massive scale… two hundred concrete commitments have been gathered.”

Speakers on stage reminded the gathering that although businesses may be ready to take action and mobilize capital, there remains a need for government support and that businesses working with the United Nations will help to unlock that potential.

One strong recurring theme in Rio this week at every level is ending subsidies for fossil fuel. And, while we are at it, ending subsidies that lead to over-fishing. Check back here for more news from Rio+20.

What do you think about what’s happening at Rio +20? Share your thoughts below—especially if you are attending.

The long road to Rio: Why the UN kept the lights on last weekend by Martha Shaw

Rarely is a more diverse collection of people found under one roof than the 500 or so working around the clock last weekend at the United Nations to hash out “the document” — a.k.a. the Zero draft of the outcome document — being submitted to the Rio+20 Earth Summit later this month. Working in the spirit of international, multilateral agreement were diplomats, delegates, youths, farmers, community leaders, indigenous people, local authorities, NGOs, scientists, technologists, women groups, activists, workers and trade unions, multinational business and industry representatives, and nonprofit organizations of all kinds. They were scrutinizing every word in every paragraph seeking common ground. One thing that everybody clearly had in common was stamina.

Though there were plenty of newbies to the process, this was not new for the many veterans who have been dedicated to the pressing global issues addressed in the document since the first Earth Summit in 1992, also held in Rio de Janeiro. This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the first document in which so many sections were agreed upon, but few implemented.

Filling in the brackets

Among those people who have been party to the process nearly since its inception, is Remi Parmentier, who has more than 35 years in the environmental movement working with many of the key players in the UN and other intergovernmental organizations. (See his blog: As the weekend at the UN wore on, I asked Parmentier if he was disappointed in the lack of agreement in key areas of the document. He shed a new light on the term “agreement” for me, pointing out that if we resorted to the lowest common denominator, it would be a document of little substance. In the document, the bracketed areas of text — the unresolved issues — represent areas where the envelope was being pushed. Remi Parmentier writes:

It is true there is at this late stage far too much square bracketed text reflecting disagreements in the overall negotiating document, hence it is going to be a real challenge to negotiate on so many issues in Rio and to get an outcome that makes sense. But at another level, it is important to recognize it is a good thing that countries that have a progressive agenda haven’t caved in completely. UN processes are too often a race towards the lowest common denominator, but the large amount of square bracketed text shows that we’re not there yet, even though what is considered “progressive” in the text could and should be stronger. If there was no key square bracketed text, there would be no tension, no drama, hence no story, hence little to report from Rio.

The New York-based diplomats are very good at maintaining and defending the positions of their respective countries, but by definition they do not have enough of a mandate or the necessary flexibility to negotiate in earnest; only the politicians can do that. So now that the negotiation is moving to Rio and the politicians are going to become involved we must maintain hope that real progress can be achieved by them. In a way it is a blessing that the diplomats haven’t dived into the lowest common denominator as they often do too fast, before handing it over to the politicians. It is not too late, almost everything is possible now, within the constraints of the negotiating text, if the governments come to Rio with a strong political will.

A triathlete in the race

Chantal Line Carpentier, the Sustainable Development Officer & Major Groups Program Coordinator of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Sustainable Development, has the task of coordinating the “Major Groups” throughout the Rio+20 process, including on the ground in Rio. What is evident in Carpentier is an in-depth understanding of the issues, the endurance of a triathlete, which she is, and a knack for “herding cats,” as the expression goes. She remained composed and incredibly organized throughout the process.

In an interview with Civicus, the world alliance for citizen participation, Carpentier said, “My hopes are high because the stakes are high. While countries have made some progress on changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production over the last 20 years, in the context of escalating economic and environmental pressures, and increasing populations, overall things have worsened. We are using resources at an increasing rate and the gaps between rich and poor are widening. Most of the world’s ecosystems are in decline. Meanwhile, more than one billion people lack access to food, electricity or safe drinking water. When you consider all that, it’s not really surprising that social unrest is on the rise.”

Nearing the end of the road
The last of pre-negotiations to Rio+20, now just two weeks away, concluded Saturday night with the book launch of Only One Earth, by Felix Dodds, Executive Director of the Stakeholder Forum, and Michael Strauss, with a foreword by Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Earth Summit in 1992.

Strong writes: “In the same way that banks succeeded at privatizing the profits and socializing the losses as they led the global economy to the brink of collapse, we are in danger of doing the same with the environment. Humanity has taken a huge leap in the last decades and become a planetary-scale force – we need to behave as a global civilization if we are not to face catastrophic consequences.”
The book looks back over what has been achieved in the past 40 years since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm and the first Earth Summit in 1992, and ahead to what critically needs to happen at Rio+20 and beyond.

This excerpt from Only One Earth is especially pertinent to Rio+20:

Rio+20 is a unique opportunity to make the “change-of-course” called for by business leaders at the Earth Summit in 1992. It requires fundamental changes in the way in which we manage the activities through which we impact on the Earth’s sustainability. This will require a degree of cooperation beyond anything we have yet experienced at a time when competition and conflict over scarce resources is escalating.
Underscoring this were the closing remarks of Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of Rio+20, that commended everyone for their tireless efforts but also referred to the document as a far cry from the focused political document mandated by the General Assembly. “We have had an intense week of negotiations, and I sense real progress. Still, as everyone in this room is well aware, we have much hard work ahead of us in Rio. I have listened to both the plenary discussions and many of the informal splinter group discussions. I sense a real dialogue; a real willingness to find common ground. This spirit is encouraging, and we must carry it to Rio. Yet, we must drastically accelerate the pace of our negotiations,” said Sha. “We need action. We need government commitment to action, in the outcome document. And we also need voluntary commitments from all stakeholders.”

The next and final Preparatory Committee meeting will be held in Rio June 13-15, just ahead of the Rio+20 Conference itself, held from June 20-22. The Rio+20 Secretariat has also opened a registry of commitments on the Rio+20 website that is designed to complement the government-ratified outcome document. To join the global conversation, visit Rio+20: The Future We Want.