Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, has come and gone. The global environmental community certainly had high hopes for this event, described as the biggest UN conference ever. With such outsized expectations, some people were bound to be disappointed… and in this case, a great many people felt let down by the conference. Was it all bad, though? Well… that depends on who’s answering the question.
Many news outlets and bloggers described the conference as falling short of expectations, but particular vitriol was reserved for the 49-page consensus agreement document “The Future We Want” (warning: PDF). Huffington Post blogger Sunita Narain called it a “weak and meaningless document” that does little more than reaffirm the UN principle of common but differentiated responsibilities: the principle that each country should do what it can to combat climate change. She even went so far as to state that world leaders, focused on geopolitical concerns rather than building an understanding of alternatives to consumption-based economic growth, are “still in kindergarten.” Others pointed out that the agreement had highly aspirational language but no goals or timelines to go with it.
To other observers of Rio+20, the conference did feature some notable successes. Voice of America highlighted a number of signature initiatives that the United States presented and jumpstarted at Rio+20, including partnerships between government and industry. Forbes documented commitments on sustainable agriculture and biodiversity made by some of the world’s largest companies, like Coca-Cola. One of the more notable announcements from businesses at the conference was a commitment by 24 major companies to develop methodologies for valuing natural capital, such as services provided to humanity by forests and marine ecosystems.
Rio+20 has been discussed by some outlets as a monolithic event that was supposed to result in a single common goal. The reality is that the conference had thousands of participants, each with different goals, and likely many thousands of side conversations and side agendas that weren’t widely discussed. There’s wide disappointment in the performance of world leaders at the event, but there’s also a recognition that businesses, through their own business-focused negotiations, made a leap forward in acknowledging that industry can do much toward sustainability. The next few years will show which Rio+20 outcomes really make a difference and whether the conference as a whole was a success or failure.
Chris Sequeira writes on sustainability and systems thinking at his blog Master This Machine.