Future compromised

The Earth Summit was a historical opportunity to set the world on the correct development trajectory. Negotiators from 191 countries came together to chart a road map for sustainable development and poverty eradication. The theme was green economy. But developed and developing countries refused to bury their differences. Developed countries were not ready to let go of their extravagant lifestyle, while developing countries were expected to take on green commitments. The countries could not even reach a consensus on the definition of green economy. The outcome is a document that neither shows how to save the environment nor ways to alleviate poverty. Arnab Pratim Dutta reports from Rio de Janeiro

By Arnab Pratim Dutta
Published: Sunday 15 July 2012

Future compromised

rio 20In the morning of June 19, bleary eyed negotiators left Pavilion 3 of Riocentro to return to their hotel rooms to freshen themselves up. A long round of intense negotiations had taken place the previous night to finalise the outcome draft of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also called Rio+20. Riocentro was the hall where the conference took place, some 30 km from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city.

Negotiators had found the night of June 18 tough. Sustenance had been difficult with the food court shut and coffee and munchies unavailable. Hungry negotiators waddled through the corridors looking for food. As the intensity of parlays increased inside Pavilion 3, tempers too went up. At one point, harried negotiators from Venezuela asked the civil society representatives, allowed to be part of the negotiations for the first time, to leave the room.

Yet, it had been a decisive night. Negotiators from 191 countries had managed to achieve what they could not in the past six months during informal negotiations. There had been agreement on less than 25 per cent of the draft compiled by the United Nations. On June 15, the last informal negotiation, when the co- chairs reported that very little progress had been made, the Brazilian presidency decided to take over from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In less than a day, it introduced its own text and created subgroups with Brazilian diplomats heading them all. In many ways, a new negotiation process was set into motion.


The new draft favoured developing countries. At a press conference on June 18, the Brazilian delegation announced that except for a few paragraphs the draft was agreed upon by all the countries. However, two of the most important aspects, sustainable development goals and green economy, were yet to be decided. Indian negotiators told reporters that they had managed to persuade developed countries to keep the phrase “common but differentiated responsibility” in the draft. By the evening, negotiators from developing countries informed reporters that the European Union may give in to the pressure and a compromise formula of letting the United Nations General Assembly decide on sustainable development goals was being mooted.

  Some countries say though the outcome document is balanced, it is not ambitious enough  
By midnight all issues barring those of the high seas and self-determination of people under foreign occupation had been decided. It was about 4 in the morning when the text was finally agreed upon.

The next day, the agreed draft was printed by the Brazilian presidency and circulated among the negotiators. But it could not be called a conference document as it had not yet been formally adopted by a plenary. Unlike previous UN conferences, where all the negotiation drafts were released to the public despite being under deliberation, this text was marked by utter secrecy. The Brazilian government had worked hard on the draft. It did not want to solicit premature comments from non- government organisations and activists.


Countries agreed upon a document that could be called the conference’s outcome. About 100-odd heads of states and top government representatives were to arrive the next day. Australia, India, China, France, Russia and South Africa were represented by their top leaders while the US sent its Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. To the relief of all negotiators, an agreement had been reached that the world leaders could tout as a blueprint to a more responsible world. They called it “The Future We Want”.

Compromise, the way ahead

It is seldom that an outcome is reached in multilateral negotiations under UN without going into extra time. This was an exception. However, the outcome did not satisfy all. Outside the negotiation chambers, civil society groups slammed the outcome document as one without ambition. “Two years and one late night of negotiations later, diplomats in Rio are letting the world down,” said Jim Leape, director general of World Wide Fund for Nature, in a press statement released on June 19. Some even called the conference Rio minus 40 because they viewed the outcome as regressive.

The same held true within the negotiation chambers. Even on June 19 when the document was adopted, some negotiators said they had agreed to it with a spirit of compromise. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, admitted before the media that some member countries had complained the document was not ambitious enough. The negotiators complained that although it was balanced, it did not give enough consideration to the circumstances of each country.

From extreme left: Banners prepared by activists; giant fish sculptures made from discarded plastic bottles at Rio

The European Union wanted to set ambitious targets and action-oriented goals for each country. It camouflaged it under phrases of green economy as a tool for sustainable development and sustainable development goals. The aim was to set green targets under which economic and development parameters could be gauged. But once the conference rejected their claims to a universal definition of green economy and referred the sustainable development goals to a committee to be formed under the UN General Assembly, their hopes were more or less dashed.

  China and Japan were unhappy. The US was dejected as the reproductive rights of women were not recognised  
In the evening, Brazilian foreign minister Antonio Patriota conducted the final plenary of the “pre-conference informal consultations”. Here, Denmark spoke on behalf of the European Union and stressed that the document should have led to more concrete actions.

The African Union, which forms an integral part of G77+China, and the European Union wanted the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) turned into a specialised UN body on the lines of UNDP or UNICEF. They wanted it to be called United Nations Environmental Organisation. But on strong opposition from the US, Brazil, India and China and some other developing countries, the African contingent dropped the demand. Kenya, which hosts UNEP, and Congo were the two most vocal countries.

DILMA ROUSSEFFThis showed in the final plenary where both reiterated their demand for a specialised UNEP. Japan said the document was not the ideal outcome. China was unhappy with the section on trade measures and technology transfer. The US was dejected that the reproductive rights of women were not recognised and priority themes for sustainable development goals had not been finalised. The US warned that the issue of forming a specialised UNEP should not be reopened, else the delicate balance of the outcome document would be disturbed.

Wasted opportunity

Leaders at the high level segment considered Rio+20 to be a job well done. Non-government organisations and activists think it managed to preserve the original principles of the Earth Summit, but had nothing for the future. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff for holding a successful conference and said, “the future we want should be a future in which there is ecological and economic space for sustainable growth for all”.

Hillary Clinton went a step ahead by congratulating Brazil for showing deft and effective leadership which helped coalesce a document that marks a real advance for sustainable development. She was referring to using markets for financing as a solution to ecological problems. “It should be said of Rio that people left here thinking, as the late Steve Jobs put it, not just big but different. We should be thinking different about harnessing the power of the market,” she said.

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, called Rio+20 a “tangible progress”. “The agreement Rio+20 produces should be an embodiment of our collective resolve for a renewed global development paradigm for a sustainable future for all.”

But even as the high level segment shied away from speaking undiplomatically, activists and non-government organisations criticised the outcome. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, called it a failure of epic proportions. “We must now work together to create a movement to tackle the equity, ecology and economic crises being forced on our children. The only outcome of this summit is justifiable anger, an anger that we must turn into action.”

Meena Raman, a campaigner with Third World Network, an ecological and climate advocacy group based in Malaysia, says Rio+20 was a wasted opportunity. “At this point, the world is facing a set of multiple crises—a financial crisis, a food crisis and an energy crisis. We should have found a way to tackle these. But we have gone back to the old model of finding answers in market-based mechanisms,” she said. “If there is a silver lining, it is that we managed to preserve multilateralism and not lose what we had achieved in 1992.”

On June 21 more protestors sat near the entrance of Riocentro and tore copies of the outcome document. They condemned Rio+20 as a failed summit. Part of the blame, say activists, lies with the fact that there is still no North and South cooperation. Developed countries are still not interested in engaging with the developing countries. One of the easy takeaways from this conference could have been accountability standards for transnational corporations. But this too did not happen. Asad Rehman, senior campaigner of Friends of the Earth, the United Kingdom, says the good news is that this conference will not be called Rio minus 20. But the bad news is that “there is no interest in moving to a new model of sustainable growth”, he said. As a case in point, he cites sustainable energy, an initiative started as part of the Rio+20 process. He says it strives to provide modern energy to all, but modern energy also means power from clean coal and nuclear.

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