By Rona Fried
The lofty purpose of the Rio+20 Earth Summit was to "establish an institutional framework for sustainable development and to establish a green economy.. While not legally binding, the document that emerges from Rio+20 will serve as a roadmap for sustainable development."
With that kind of set up, the conference couldn't help but disappoint - let's solve the world's problems with this one simple text that 180 countries will be happy to sign onto!
Still, delegates managed to approve a 49-page document, "The Future We Want, " which reaffirms much of the text from the same conference 20 years ago. In fact, the word "reaffirm" appears 59 times in the text! Complaints from the NGO community are its wishy washy language, lack of specifics, timetables or deadlines. Greenpeace calls it a "failure of epic proportions," while the Pew Environment Group says, "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."
Here's an excerpt from the text:
"We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature."
"The declaration has no figures, dates and targets. It is as stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans. There is nothing to work with here, no program, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. Its tone and contents would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to a complex of escalating global crises. The 283 paragraphs of fluff suggests that 190 governments have, in effect, given up on multilateralism, given up on the world and given up on us," says George Monbiot, author and columnist for The Guardian.
Mark Halle, Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development- Europe says: "The first conclusion we must reach is that we should call a moratorium on all global, multilateral negotiations and begin to address the thousands of unfulfilled promises and commitments we have made. To do so would build momentum of success that would once again instill hope and belief among our populations.
"The second conclusion is that our intergovernmental structures are tired, lack vision and courage, and are increasingly left behind by the natural momentum of creativity and innovation in our societies. Worse still, there can no longer be any doubt that they are to all intents and purposes unreformable.
"So, on the one hand, we have a government-based process that is hopelessly stuck in the mud. On the other we have a mass of energy, creativity and strength that is not only committed to action but raring to go if only we can find the forms and channels to harness it. This, surely, is the creative field of endeavour for the future." Here's his full commentary.
What Went Wrong?
Indeed, the set up for the conference may have been a key reason for its downfall. Halle says:
"When, two years ago, the UN decided to hold this conference, there was no particular reason for it except that the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Summit was looming. There were plenty of general reasons, including the fact that most of the decisions taken in 1992 have been ignored, most of the agreed actions never taken, and the planet has continued to decline. But nothing suggested the necessary political will could be mustered to take transformative steps, to agree on game-changing resolutions, or even to stimulate implementation of the myriad decisions, resolutions and undertakings that were made in Rio in 1992 or in the two decades since."
People pinned their hopes on the sheer mass of talent that would be one place at one time, but "mass is no longer majesty, and large conferences, far from generating momentum, have, in the words of one commentator, become "too big to succeed," says Halle.
Apparently, the preparatory process was flawed. Groups of governments camped firmly on their positions; the UN secretariat offered no vision and little mobilizing power and failed to generate the funding needed to put together a proper team. And the host country, Brazil, never gave the sense that this conference was a high political priority.
Despite adding extra negotiating sessions, only about a seventh of the draft outcome document was agreed before delegates arrived. Negotiations couldn't be completed before Heads of State arrived, so Brazilians pulled a text from their back pockets and offered it on a "take it or leave it" basis to the stunned delegates, Halle says.
Besides repeated reaffirmations from the 1992 Rio text, it documents priorities without any targets or specifics; energy, water, oceans, cities, food security, sustainable consumption, economic development and institutional design.
It's time for a different approach.