It’s hard to know exactly what to say about Rio, and perhaps much too early to assess its impact. While no one seems to be declaring the conference a resounding success, some commentators argue that it was a useful undertaking with good results, especially in the area of partnerships and voluntary efforts. Others deride it as a waste of time, effort and money — with a huge carbon footprint. Admittedly, expectations were low going in, so the fact that much of anything got done can seem positive. But when hundreds of world leaders and movers and shakers in the environmental arena get together it would be nice to have something besides a sometimes impenetrable document and a list of voluntary commitments.
What you think of the outcome may depend on which “Rio” you are talking about, since there seemed to be several. The formal UN Conference on Sustainable Development at the RioCentro complex was the focus of attention, with thousands of participants accredited and top UN and national figures in attendance. The plenary pavilion, where heads of state made seemingly endless statements, was restricted for the most part to national delegations and observer missions, but most of the proceedings were broadcast to overflow locations. A favorite spot to watch became the hangar-like food court with its giant screen. So those not favored with a D for diplomat designation on their badges could still feel a part of the formal proceedings.
And there were scores, indeed hundreds, of other meetings, workshops and gatherings in the various pavilions around the complex. From large formal side-events with distinguished rosters of speakers and participants, to hastily pulled-together sessions in small hot rooms, attendance was often substantial and the discourse lively. For the most part the mood was brisk and people rushed from place to place in businesslike fashion, clutching cellphones and iPads. On only a few occasions were there signs of protests or demonstrations, mostly small, with more security guards than protesters.
Some people made the long trip from downtown simply to visit Athletes Park, a ten minute walk from the main RioCentro complex, which was open to the public and housed tents and exhibits, mostly of corporations, countries and Brazilian states. There you could see electric cars and futuristic displays, or attend more briefings.
But there were many other venues, other “Rios.” The World Meeting of Environmental Lawyers at the Botanical Gardens examined aspects of sustainable development law. The Legal Frameworks for Sustainable Development colloquium at the Getulio Vargas Foundation Law School explored innovative concepts for attaining green economy goals. And at the impressive UNEP World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability, senior judges, attorneys general and auditors general spent two days far outside of Rio, examining their roles in the implementation of sustainable development laws and programs. At hotels and conference sites around the city NGOs, business entities and other groups hosted their own events.
And last but by no means least, was the peoples’ gathering in Flamengo Park on the banks of the harbor. The atmosphere ranged from intense, impassioned discussion to street fair. Protests against the “elite” who gathered at RioCentro were common, with international environmental NGOs included in the scorn.
Rio was a convocation of alternate realities.
So what was accomplished in all these venues? Some participants came away happier than others. The two areas where people seemed most satisfied with the formal proceedings related to oceans and the small island developing states, or SIDS. Oceans garnered 20 of the 283 paragraphs, a substantial percentage, including most of what ocean advocates wanted. Especially cheered was a commitment to address protection of marine biodiversity in the high seas, including a promise to consider development of an implementing agreement under the Law of the Sea Convention, although the timetable for “urgent” action stretched to 2014.
The prominence of oceans at Rio was reflected in a meeting, chaired by His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco and attended by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to receive a report of the oceans forum. When the Secretary General commented on the crowding in the cramped room, a wag in the back called out, “You know, you can’t have oceans meetings in small rooms anymore!” to good-natured laughter. An interesting contrast to the angry human rights protestors in the hall-way shouting “Ban Ki-moon! Ban Ki-moon!”
The SIDS had only three specific paragraphs in the final document, but were pleased to have their goal of holding the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius given recognition — “1.5 to stay alive.” One SIDS diplomat said that they were much happier leaving Rio than they had been leaving Durban, and felt they had gained leverage in the climate debate through the process.
Nevertheless, many people left Rio with a rather cynical view of what had happened. Some very impressive voluntary commitments and partnerships resulted, but will they come to fruition? Will some of the energy and enthusiasm translate into action and real progress? As I wrote earlier, the byword may be “regardless” — regardless of what the politicians do, citizens, municipalities and businesses may be the ones to bring about real change. But what can we do to ensure that happens?
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that some who participated in the first Rio Earth Summit recall that even back in 1992 there were mixed reviews of what occurred and criticism of the outcomes. So perhaps we must wait to judge the extent to which Rio+20 advanced the cause of sustainable development.