25 June 2012


The general consensus of commentators is that the Rio +20 world summit conference has failed to produce any agreement of significance and represents yet another wasted opportunity to address the pressing issues facing the future of the planet.

As one described it, “Rio+20 has been an international gathering of over 50,000 people whose ecological footprint was infinitely bigger than its outcomes.”

‘Rio will go down as the hoax summit,’ Oxfam chief executive Barbara Stocking said. ‘We elect governments to tackle the issues that we can’t tackle alone. But they are not providing the leadership the world desperately needs.’ 

The vague final text contains frequent use of words such as “recognises," "reaffirms," and encourages," but very few "adopts" or "will".

For example whilst acknowledging the reality of climate change and stating that "combating climate change requires urgent and ambitious action", moves to eliminate subsidies on fossil fuels - recommended in a number of authoritative reports as likely to boost economies and curb CO2 emissions - came to nothing.

Plans to enshrine the right of poor people to have clean water, adequate food and modern forms of energy also foundered or were seriously weakened during the six days of preparatory talks.

On the other hand while acknowledging that many would be disappointed with the lack of progress, some world leaders attempted to cast the outcome in a more positive light emphasising the areas where progress had been made, such as the pledge to develop a set of sustainable development goals within three years, and to ensure better governance of the high seas through marine protected areas, regulation of illegal fishing etc.

While the leaders summit was busy watering down the original proposed draft, in contrast the parallel “Peoples’ Summit” was abuzz with hope and solutions. Ideas and opportunities were shared about how to address the crises of environment, equity and ecology. Experts explained that we have energy solutions to bring about a green energy revolution, avoiding catastrophic climate change and providing access to power for 1.6 billion people who have none: an energy revolution that would provide millions with decent jobs and bolster failing economies.

Perhaps one other hopeful outcome from the main conference was in the hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments, and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress, such as Microsoft’s pledge to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030, and the Italian oil giant Eni’s commitment to reduce its flaring of natural gas.

“Even a complicated, diverse world can address problems not through treaties, but by identifying the goals that then inspire decentralized actions,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

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