Whereas the first Rio conference in 1992 produced international treaties on climate change and biodiversity that were hailed as landmarks in human history, this year’s summit produced a 53-page document entitled The Future We Want, which has been widely derided for being weak and meaningless
The document’s impact can be gauged by the fact that the word “encourage” appears in the document 50 times, but the phrase “we will” only five times; “support” is used 99 times, “must” just three.
Key clauses of the documents, such as “Article 47” on corporate sustainability reporting, and on the ending of fossil fuel subsidies, were watered down. While it was agreed that global Sustainable Development Goals should be developed, little was achieved to give them form and direction.
Part of the problem was that organizers were so keen to preserve the legacy of 1992 Earth Summit and avoid the perceived failure that occurred at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, that they pushed through the outcome document before most of the political leaders had arrived. Signing something, anything even, was seen as better than signing nothing. That left little of substance to negotiate and produced a document that satisfied almost no-one.
But, and it is an important “but”, it would be a mistake to believe that nothing of importance happened at Rio+20. There was plenty of action, it just did not come from the multilateral political negotiations.
Businesses – and some governments, both national and local – got on with the job either unilaterally or in groups, often in collaboration with civil society and NGOs.
On the sidelines of the summit, pledges of more than US$500 billion were reported to have been committed in areas such as sustainable energy and transport, green economy, disaster reduction, desertification, water, forests and agriculture.
In 1992 it was governments that made the commitments and pushed businesses into action. Twenty years on there has been a role reversal. And that is how Rio+20 may just, in a small way, have changed the world: by demonstrating that businesses can and will seize the initiative on sustainability with or without political progress on the international level.