Rio de Janeiro is the birthplace of the United Nations Earth Summit.So it seems appropriate that the giant beast of sustainable development negotiations should go there to die. And where New World Vultures smelt the wounded and circle overhead.
The UN Earth Summit was first held in Rio in June 1992. Over 191 governments took part along with
2 500 representatives of NGOs while 20 000 people attended the parallel, consultative event –the ForumGlobal.
The first summit delivered the Climate Change Convention. It was ambitious — laying the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity. There the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which established 27 sustainable development principles, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles were also agreed.
More importantly the first Earth Summit represented a message of hope.
Environmental concerns, from climate change to biodiversity were no longer the obsessions of green pressure groups. Global solutions were now being sought by global governments.
Former US president George H W Bush made an unexpected appearance at the summit and the newly elected British Prime Minister John Major was an enthusiastic and engaged lead for the UK delegation.
For many environmental NGOs, it was a miracle birth. For some corporations, it represented a real threat. But here we are, 20 years later, with the UN hosting the Rio+20, the largest event of its kind with sustainable development dominating the agenda.
Yet something has changed. Instead of injecting new life into the Earth Summit process, the atmosphere was one of sombre acceptance or outright grief. At the end indications are this Rio+20 will go down as the “hoax summit”.
They came, they talked, but they failed to act. Paralysed by inertia and in hock to vested interests, too many leaders were unable to join up the dots and solve the connected crisis of environment, equality and economy.
From the outset indications were that Rio+20 was never going to generate the sort of landmark accords signed at the 1992 Earth Summit.
Although the summit attracted over 50 000 people, many were disappointed that nearly 100 leaders made few specific commitments on issues ranging from energy to food security to oceans.
Reports say throughout the negotiations, the streets of central Rio and surrounding the suburban conference hall that hosted the summit were littered with demonstrations by activists ranging from Indian tribes to environmentalists to anti-nuclear protesters.
Instead of forging legally binding treaties, organisers pointed out, the purpose of the summit was to initiate a process to define a new set of development principles.
But that process, like most global diplomacy, is rife with conflicting interests and tensions between rich countries and the developing world. The storyline was certainly different from 1992. The summit recognised more than the others that not one size fits all.
President Robert Mugabe, who attended the 1992 Earth Summit, like many other leaders this time around used his time at the podium to note the markedly different needs Zimbabwe is struggling with, especially compared with the developed world. While leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa themselves big emerging nations, spoke of their need to catch up with rich countries. Yet others like Bolivia, Iran and Cuba unleashed traditional rants against capitalism and conventional definitions of growth.
One point of contention was what many emerging nations believe is a need for a global fund that could assist them pursue development goals.
Early talk of a $30 billion fund for that purpose as a possible outcome of the summit foundered.
The grand failure of Rio+20 is a reminder that short-term corporate profit rules over the interests of people. There was no doubt that Rio+20 was indeed showing signs of “rigor mortis”.
Sadly, US president Barack Obama, who was elected on a wave of euphoria at the departure of George W Bush was “too busy” fighting an election to bring presidential gravitas to the forum. On the other hand, UK premier David Cameron was caught up in the immediacy of the economic crisis tearing through Europe to turn his attention to the future ecological crisis affecting the planet.
If not dead, then Rio+20 is certainly suffering from Locked-in Syndrome, paralysed but with some signs of life around the eyes.
Brazil’s Environment minister Izabella Teixeira said it was important the negotiating process kept going, perhaps to a Rio+40.
Civil society groups from across the globe were quick to condemn world leaders — particularly from rich countries — for failing to live up to their promises or offer new vision.
Augustine Njamnshi of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a pan-continental alliance of over 300 movements and networks to amplify African voices on climate change said: “Africa is at the forefront of the interlinked crises facing humanity: a broken economic system that kills the planet leaves millions in poverty scrambling for the most basic essence of human dignity. And yet developed countries’ governments came here and have not been able to live up to their meager promises on resources for sustainable development. Is this what we call renewed political commitment?”
Thus, the conference, which ended with more set piece speeches from leaders, saw the summit closing with what was widely considered a lackluster agreement, leaving many attendees convinced that individuals and companies, rather than governments, should lead efforts to improve the environment.
The reasons are that lack of consensus over those goals in Rio de Janeiro led to the agreement that even some signatory countries said lacked commitment, specifics and measurable targets.
Clearly, a series of much-hyped global summits on environmental policy has now fallen short of expectations, going back at least to a 2009 UN meeting in Copenhagen that ended in near chaos; Mexico in 2010 and Durban 2011 which went into extra time.
As a result, it tells us that progress on environmental issues must be made locally with the private sector and without the help of international accords.
Finally, the roster of promises issued at the end of the summit could be described as “pallid or gutless”.