In the months preceding Rio+20, hopes were high that the international summit on sustainable development would deliver actual change in the field of international environmental governance. A week after the gathering concluded, opinions and perceptions of the summit have changed: most actors are disappointed with the outcome document "The Future we want" signed on 22 June by heads of states or governments.
At a press conference on Thursday (28 June), UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, addressed the outcomes of the summit: “Let me be clear. Rio+20 was a success (…) In Rio, we saw the further evolution of an undeniable global movement for change”. Ban aligned with Brazilian President Dilma Roussef’s views of the conference being a new departure. “The consensus is a point of departure, not arrival (…) With this document, nations move forward. We cannot allow anyone to remain behind. The next conference will have to be a leap forward”.
However, even as some are praising the consensus around the measures adopted, influential thinkers and NGOs active in the environmental space have criticized a failed summit. For these stakeholders, Rio+20 did not push far enough. They also place little trust in the commitments announced, such as the registry opened during the conference – the UN announces it received more than 700 commitments and mobilized $US513 billion for sustainable projects by governments and businesses. Policies focused on a ‘green economy’ were also a contentious point: mentioned in the final document, the notion is still considered by many developing economies as a means for industrialized countries to impose technologies and expand into new markets. Critics also generally regretted the omissions of key points such as ending subsidies on fossil fuels or the question of the protection of the high seas.
The Executive Director of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, expressed his “anger” in the strongest terms, setting the tone for civil society participants as a whole. He referred to Rio+20 as a “failure of epic proportions”, and urged fellow actors to “work together to form a movement to tackle the equity, ecology and economic crises being forced on our children”. Naidoo was joined by Oxfam’s Director, Barbara Stocking: "Rio will go down as the hoax summit. They came, they talked, but they failed to act”. Underlining perceptions of a stalled agenda, Martin Khor, from the Geneva-based NGO South Centre and UN Committee on Development Policy, suggested "we've sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success”. He was making a clear reference to the 59 uses of the verb “reaffirm” in a 50-page document.
With a business perspective on the issue, Professor Mervyn King, Chair of the International Integrated Reporting Council expressed his views in a panel at the Global Ethics Forum on Thursday (28 June). For King, a proactive individual attitude was necessary: “we cannot wait for political leaders to solve today's social issues”.
This is consistent with the position defended by the International Labor Organization’s Peter Poschen in The Global Journal who cited solutions adopted at the international, local, business and individual levels that were helping to forge a green economy. Such successful partnerships were actually formalized at Rio. For instance, the US has agreed to work hand in hand with over 400 multinational companies in order to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, phrased the dilemma regarding the different actions forming the conference’s outcomes in measured terms: “I can certainly understand that there are many groups and many people around the world who would have had an ambition for more progress at this meeting. (…) The nature of global action is that it needs to be collective; it needs to embrace and involve everyone. And this is the process that embraces and involves everyone”.
She is most likely right, and echoes the idea that many organizations conveyed in the wake of the summit.
(Photo © Greenpeace ; cover photo © UN)