Roundtable Reflections on Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development

The global Earth Summit, officially called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20-22, 2012. Although only three days long, the summit was preceded by a week or more of hundreds of related side meetings organized by environmental non-governmental organizations from across the globe, as well as an alternative People’s Summit.

Global Green USA, Green Cross International, and the District of Columbia Environmental Network (DCEN) organized a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012, one month after the Rio+20 Summit, with four NGO representatives who had attended the conference. I was joined by: Carl Bruch, Senior Attorney and Co-Director of International Programs with the Environmental Law Institute; Andrew Deutz, Director of International Government Relations with The Nature Conservancy; Jacob Scherr, Director of Global Strategy and Advocacy with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The roundtable was chaired by Chris Weiss, DCEN director.
The Rio+20 Summit was organized twenty years after the initial 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, during which many countries, groups, and individuals cited serious warning signs that Planet Earth was being abused and potentially destroyed by the lack of sound environmental and public health practices in both developed and less developed countries and regions. Many of these same warning signs — global warming and climate change, widespread pollution, violence and war, poverty, lack of sanitation, overpopulation, consumerism and overuse of limited natural resources, infant and maternal mortality rates — continue to threaten human existence today and must be addressed.
The speakers all agreed that the Rio conference was successful in some ways, especially as a global clarion call to governments, corporations, and people to accelerate their planning, commitments, and action to address these growing threats to human existence. Written in the long, 53-page final document from the conference, “The Future We Want” is the following: ”We… renew our commitment to sustainable development and to ensuring the promotion of an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations.”
Rio +20, what some called a mega-conference, brought together thousands of participants — estimates include some 10,000+ government representatives, 10,000+ NGO representatives, more than 4,000 media representatives, and possibly as many as another 50,000 individuals who joined the hundreds of meetings. This was the first such massive global gathering of the internet age, and was a major challenge for the Brazilian hosts to organize and manage; the speakers agreed, however, that the conference organizers did a very impressive and efficient job of moving the tens of thousands of delegates around the mega-city and providing good security, support services, and transportation.
The primary focus of Rio+20 was poverty eradication, noted many times in the final official document and no doubt indicative of the growing importance of the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The speakers noted that Rio+20 was much more global in scope that the 1992 Earth Summit, with much more active participation from developing countries and the non-aligned movement (NAM); the shift over the last two decades has clearly been made from the Group of Seven (G-7) to the Group of Twenty (G-20) and beyond, making for a much more multipolar world.
The Earth Summit also emphasized the growing importance of cities and urban regions, given that they will house most of the world’s population and contribute to most of the earth’s environmental problems. The final conference document underlined the need for sustainable cities, which focus on a “holistic approach to urban development,” including affordable housing, conservation, affordable and sustainable transport and energy, reduce, recycle, reuse practices, and increased public awareness and “enhanced public participation in decision-making.”
The roundtable speakers emphasized that some 700 pledges totaling over $500 billion were made by many governments and corporations at the conference to address a wide range of challenges, such as energy efficiency, reforestation, and pollution remediation. The speakers underlined the importance now of civil society to hold the governments and corporations accountable, and to help track these pledges. The United Nations has pledged to also track these pledges, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has developed a website, “Cloud of Commitments” which has listed more than 200 significant commitments to date. The majority of these are in the energy field, while cities appear to have accrued the largest financial commitments to date.
Also noted in the discussion was that there were very few, if any, binding national commitments in the final document, leading some critics to criticize the lack of leadership and pro-active steps by governments at the summit to address sustainable development in a timely and urgent way. Some participants also noted that some of the governments (and non-governmental groups) really did not focus on the historic gathering until just a few months prior, also leading to a lack of substantial progress at Rio. One speaker called the summit a “stepping stone, not a turning point,” towards saving the planet, and another criticized the summit for not addressing the failure to meet many of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
However, all the speakers still spoke positively of the Rio+20 Summit, and felt that it has set the stage for potential progress towards new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the MDGs in 2015. But they all agreed that it will now be crucially important for civil society, including NGOs and subnational groups such as cities and states, to hold governments and multilateral organizations, including the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), accountable for pressing forward to help save our increasingly fragile planet.
Paul Walker,
Director of Environmental Security and Sustainability Programme
Green Cross International
Related document:
– “Rio+20: Expectations & Lessons”, watch the video of Paul Walker here
– More information on Green Cross Returns to Rio

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