The U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) was the biggest U.N. conference yet, attracting about 45,000 participants. But it turned out to be a disappointment in terms of concrete achievements.
The goal was nothing if not ambitious: defining a new vision for environmental action by the international community over the coming decade.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, which redefined the agenda for global action on the environment.
The Rio+20 meeting, held in Rio from June 20 to June 22, was supposed to flesh out exactly how the "sustainable development" proposed at the 1992 meeting might be made a reality in the 21st century.
The draft of "The Future We Want," issued back in January, positioned "green economy,” in which development does not conflict with environmental protection, as a goal to be pursued by all nations. The draft also called for agreement on a timetable to set targets by 2015 for the establishment of an economic system that focuses on environmental protection through recycling and use of renewable energy.
In practice, that vision was frustrated by the harsh realities of the contemporary world economy. From the outset, the omens were inauspicious. Only 100 heads of state attended?20 percent fewer than projected?with a number of key European leaders sitting out the meeting in order to deal with the European financial crisis.
More fundamentally, the event was riven by a fundamental difference of view between the industrialized world and newly emerging nations such as China and India determined not to allow prosperous nations' green agenda, which has been justified by predictions of serious food shortages and the resource depletion, to hamper their economic development.
The emerging nations stressed that the industrialized nations, which used fossil fuels for their own development, should set an example to the rest of the world by stopping their squandering resources and actively providing capital and technological aid to the developing world.
Because the two sides could not come to an agreement, many of the specific goals proposed in the draft of "The Future We Want" were shelved. The pursuit of a green economy was demoted to an option for interested nations to pursue independently.
Rio+20 was not entirely without results.
For instance, the conference agreed on setting the next target for the Millennium Development Goals that will expire in 2015, and also on beefing up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
NGO MEMBERS PLAY ACTIVE ROLES
On the fringes of the meeting, about 10,000 members of nongovernmental organizations from around the world were an active and sometimes influential presence.
Hiroki Fukushima, deputy secretary-general of the NGO Japan Youth Ecology League, met with a Japanese government official on June 17 while pre-conference negotiations were in progress.
The league was asking the United Nations to set up a system for assessing the effects of U.N. projects on children. The Japanese official gave a positive response. Pulling out his mobile phone, Fukushima texted members on the league's mailing list, "Japan OKs (our proposal)."
Other members, who were also making pitches to other conference delegates, sent similar text messages: "Morocco OKs," "Mexico agrees."
Young league members then held a demonstration in front of the conference venue. The final Rio+20 statement included the words: "The secretary-general of the United Nations will issue a report that takes the future generations into consideration." Fukushima said he was not completely satisfied with the result, "but at least it was a victory for us that the U.N. revived our agenda."
Makiko Imai of the Japan Civil Network for the United Nations Decade on Biodiveresity said: "It is good that NGOs are now able to assert their opinions, but whether their opinions are reflected in government negotiations is a different matter. Our challenge is how we can start filling that gap."
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