They came, they spoke, they wrote, they left. But what was achieved by the Rio Earth Summit and what happens next? Mary Griffin digests the conference.
WHAT WAS THE AIM?
To agree on how best to achieve economic growth at the same time as protecting the environment and ensuring everyone in the world has access to sustainable food, energy and water. The UN suggested this was a “once in a generation” opportunity to steer the global economy onto a more sustainable footing.
With the global population expected to rise from today’s seven billion to more than 10 billion by 2050 and possibly 15 billion by the turn of the next century, the Rio Summit was trying to find a way to reduce poverty without further damaging the planet, driving a worldwide shift to a “green economy” powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels and transforming the way we produce and consume.
In 2000, the UN set a series of Millennium Development Goals, one being to half the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Since the last Rio summit 20 years ago the planet’s population has increased by 22 per cent. Seafood consumption has gone up by 32 per cent and meat consumption has gone up by 26 per cent.
But despite the world producing enough food to feed everyone, there are more hungry people today than there were at the time of the last Rio summit in 1992.
WHO WAS THERE?
More than 100 heads of state and government ministers came from around the world. Nearly 200 countries were represented, and there were more than 2,000 representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The leaders of the most powerful developing countries were there but there were notable absences from Angela Merkel, Barack Obama (who sent Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to represent the US) and David Cameron (who sent Nick Clegg, plus Environment Minister and Meriden MP Caroline Spelman to represent the UK).
Including campaigners and members of the public, around 50,000 people attended the conference or its side events.
Patterns of production were under the spotlight, as were alternative sources of energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The impact of pollution on public health and the growing scarcity of water were key issues. Many campaigners wanted to see moves to eliminate subsidies on fossil fuels, with several studies suggesting this could boost economies and curb carbon emissions.
There were also calls to set out a timetable for phasing out the use of fossil fuels, and discussion of the need for an international court for the environment. Several countries suggested a new way of measuring success using GDP+.
Unlike GDP, which only takes account of material wealth, GDP+ would include natural assets and green resources, ranking a country less favourably if it is losing species or more favourably if it has intact forests for example. The focus of the conference was to whittle down a draft of more than 80 pages of proposals to an “outcome document” titled The Future We Want, agreed by all parties. The document is not legally binding.
The general response has been that The Future We Want document falls far short of the mark. One thousand NGOs, institutions and individuals have signed a petition calling it “The Future We Don’t Want” – citing failures on removing fossil fuel subsidies, failure to protect oceans, failures to address women’s reproduction health.
A group of organisations has written to Rio+20 delegates and the UN, saying: “Rio +20 will go into history as the UN conference that offered global society an outcome marked by serious omissions.”
Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, called it “a failure of epic proportions”, saying there had been three days of “empty rhetoric and greenwash from world leaders” and labelling the final statement the “longest suicide note in history”. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has described the outcome as “insipid”, while oceanographer Sylvia Earle of National Geographic said the result for oceans could be summed up as “Rio+20 minus 40”. Offering a more forgiving view, Oliver Greenfield, convenor of the Green Economy Coalition, has said: “Rio+20 has been a stepping stone, not a turning point.”
ANY POSITIVE REVIEWS?
Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, have refused to label the conference a failure.
They wrote in the New York Times: “We saw in the myriad Rio+20-related announcements from countries, communities and companies around the globe that they were taking action themselves — irrespective of any United Nations document.
The fact that 50,000 people came to Rio and that hundreds of thousands more participated virtually through technologies like YouTube and Twitter made that loud and clear. The incredible energy and the enthusiasm they demonstrated is only a hint of what individuals can do.”
The next key date on the sustainable development journey is 2015. Colombia and Guatemala have suggested introducing Sustainable Development Goals, similar to the Millennium Development Goals which have set targets for poverty reduction, healthcare and education and are due to be renewed in 2015.
The UK, among others, is supportive of Sustainable Development Goals and they are expected to be decided over the next three years and declared by 2015, setting targets for access to sustainable food, water and energy.
In the same year the UN climate convention will have a summit - a follow-up to the Copenhagen conference of 2009 - aiming to secure a new global agreement to tackle climate change with some legal backing.