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.”
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 350.org 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 350.org 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.