Skip to main content

Rod Oram’s Rio Blog #8

Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog #8, Friday 22nd June:

The wrap-up

Please note I left Rio Thursday evening for a long-standing commitment elsewhere. For help with the final day of the summit, I’ve drawn on various sources. By far the best is the Guardian’s daily blog

The UN’s “once in a generation” sustainability summit ended with a whimper on Friday. It petered out in series of press conferences and the closing ceremony.

Some 190 countries signed the summit document, entitled The Future We Want. It was “a pathway for a sustainable century,” they said in their closing statement.

Yet the heads of state offered no ringing declarations or stirring pledges as their predecessors had at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. All they signed up to was a weak document full of concern about the state of the planet but empty of commitments to do anything about it.

One quote from the host country succinctly captured the lack of understanding.

“The expansion of trade with China can be infinite,” said Brazil’s Finance Minister Guido Mantega, as he announced a new bilateral deal on the sidelines of the summit. “China is fast growing and wants to stimulate consumption so they will continue to buy our commodities. There are no limits.”

The summit was seriously handicapped by this big split between developed and developing countries on the meaning and purpose of sustainability.

Nick Clegg, the UK’s deputy Prime Minister, described it this way in an interview with the Friday’s edition of the UK’s Daily Telegraph:

“The political significance of Rio is that the G77 nations are antagonistic to our European ideas on the green economy,” said Mr Clegg. “They were worried about some of the process issues around the SDGs (the Sustainable Development Goals the UN intends to develop).

“People are disappointed by the text … as I am. We could probably have a perfectly formed text with a lot of precision if we kicked out large parts of the developing world but that is unacceptable. It has to work for the developing and developed world.”

Mr Clegg blamed China and other developing countries, that have huge reserves of coal and want to continue using fossil fuels to grow, for failing to back plans for the green economy.

He said Europe can no longer take the lead in such international negotiations because power is shifting “from West to East”.

“We no longer live in a neocolonial world where a small number of Governments can get together and write a text and say to the rest of the world you have to accept this,” he added. “The developing world is much more assertive.”

In contrast, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was all sweetness and light when she addressed the plenary session on Friday. Hers was a brazen interpretation of the summit given that the US was one of a handful of countries, along Venezuela, Russia, Japan and Canada that blocked a proposal for a stronger governance system for the oceans.

The US had also tried to remove form the summit text many of the 27 key sustainability principles agreed at the first Rio Earth summit.

Mrs Clinton told the plenary session:

“Brazil has done the world a great service by hosting us all here. These could be fractious times, but thanks to deft leadership we have coalesced around an agreement on sustainable development. How we agree over the long term on this isn’t only question for some countries it’s a question for all countries. Here in Rio, thanks to Brazil, we are at the centre of our shared efforts to find answers.

We meet a critical moment. For some countries and some peoples around the world this is not a matter for the long term planning but immediate pressing action.

…We know what is possible, we know what we could do, but we also know that the future is not guaranteed because the resources upon which we all depend – fresh water, oceans, arable land, stable climate, are under increasing pressure. That is why in the 21st century, the only viable development is sustainable development. The only way to deliver lasting progress for everyone is by preserving our resources and protecting our common environment

…While the outcome document [at Rio+20] contains many important principles and proposals, the most compelling products of this conference are new thinking, and models that can lead to action. It should be said of Rio that people left here, as the late Steve Jobs said, thinking not just big but different.”

If you want to a more balanced analysis of the document, the Guardian asked a number of experts to annotate it. You can read the document and their comments at:

Yet the summit was not a complete failure. For all its vagueness, the final text did include some useful elements: a commitment to strengthen the UN Environment Programme; to devise UN Sustainable Development Goals; to create a “GDP+” framework to measure progress in more ways than just economic; to push ‘green accounting’; and promotion of corporate sustainability reporting measures.

The GDP+ work will help the UN Development Programme create a Sustainable Development Index.

“Equity, dignity, happiness, sustainability – these are all fundamental to our lives but absent in the GDP,” Helen Clark, head of the UNDP, said at the summit launch of the work. “Progress needs to be defined and measured in a way which accounts for the broader picture of human development and its context.”

The summit was also partially saved by a deluge of initiatives, collaborations, programmes and the like launched by NGOs, businesses, governments, international agencies and combinations of them.

The rapidly increasing involvement of the private sector, and the active courting of it by governments and agencies such as the UN’s environment and development programmes, is one of the biggest shifts since the first Earth Summit. Back then governments were seen as the main drivers of sustainability through laws, protocols and other measures.

The largest business event at the summit was the corporate sustainability forum. You can read more about it in my 9th blog, which is a re-run of my Sunday Star-Times column for June 24.

During the forum, companies announced a large number of initiatives. You can read them here:

But there are still plenty of powerful voices railing against the business embrace of sustainability.

George Monbiot blogged during the summit:

It’s the definitive neoliberal triumph: the monetisation and marketisation of nature, its reduction to a tradeable asset. Once you have surrendered it to the realm of Pareto optimisation and Kaldor-Hicks compensation, everything is up for grabs. These well-intentioned dolts, the fellows of the grand academy of Lagado who produced the government’s assessment, have crushed the natural world into a column of figures. Now it can be swapped for money.”

Yet the money is also a power for good. The biggest sum committed at the summit, underpinning a specific pledge in the summit document, was US$175bn over 10 years to help shift investment from roads to public transport such as buses, trains and cycle lanes.

The eight largest multilateral development banks in the world, which will provide the money, hope it will leverage 10 to 20 times as much money from city governments and the private sector.

For a document that was scandalously vague this was a very specific commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, improve access for the urban poor and reduce road accidents.

But that was pretty much it for concrete actions by the heads of state.

In contrast, the people who elect them were busy making personal pledges to act. You can read them on this summit website page:

To help bring accountability for voluntary actions, the US Natural Resources Defense Council has created a website where people, communities, organisations, businesses and government can log their commitments:

Of course every voluntary action is valuable; and if the movement becomes powerful enough, it might embolden governments to do more.

But governments’ sheer lack of urgency was the most terrifying dynamic of the summit.

Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s Minister of Environment, said that Rio+20 should be seen as part of an ongoing journey.

“We are looking towards Rio+40 or Rio+60. The number of years doesn’t matter: the important thing is the ‘plus’. We must keep the message going and promote the dialogue on sustainable development that we started in 1992. Rio+20 ends today but the journey goes on.”

But humankind cannot afford such a long and winding road to sustainability.  Our natural resource use has increased by 40% in the 20 years since the first Earth Summit; and the rate of growth of use is accelerating rapidly, along with the accompanying climate change, pollution and destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems.

This is not the Future We Want…nor can we afford.



Leave a comment

Subscribe to our newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates on Pure Advantage and New Zealand's Green Growth. 

Thanks, you have been subscribed.

Subscribe to download our PDF version

Thank you! Here's the download link - Carbon Sequestration by Native Forest – Setting the Record Straight