Editorial Feature

What Happened At Rio+20? An Overview of the Highs, Lows and Achievements of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

The party is now over in Rio. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, that is. The once in a generation opportunity to change the future of the planet ended on Friday, after running from 20-22nd June 2012. Seen as the successor to the 1992 Earth summit held in Rio, some of the world’s most influential figures attended-so what exactly was this all-star cast looking to achieve?

Essentially, the conference was aiming to make future existence on this planet sustainable, so that we as a species can cope with the phenomenal rise in population which is going to occur over the next 50-100 years. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, stressed before the conference that Rio+20 was “too important to fail”. It sounds important, doesn’t it? So, how did we get on? Has the planet been saved?

What was Achieved at Rio+20?

Let us first start with the positives of this conference. A 49 page document, titled ‘The Future We Want’, is the culmination of the conference and outlines what has been achieved.

Certain sectors will be very happy with the contents of this document-prominent among these will be campaigners for cleaner oceans.

They will have been relatively happy with the pledges at the conference to create protected areas in the oceans, as well as the promise of tighter regulations on illegal fishing. Given that since the last Earth summit twenty years ago seafood consumption has risen by 32%, this initiative will be a welcome move towards sustainable fishing.

Sustainable development goals (SDGs) have also made progress and a process for implementing these been outlined in the document. There is a feeling that these can have a genuine worth if they are backed up further after the conference, and these could be active in the next 3 years.

The final document also acknowledges that GDP is not the only way of measuring a countries development, and calls for more emphasis to be put on environmental factors.

The final document also calls for more work to be done by the private sector in relation to sustainability.

What Were the Major Issues with Rio+20?

For all the good intentions behind the Rio+20 conferences, people from all spheres are decrying the gathering as somewhat redundant. The document, though full of laudable sentiment, made very few specific promises or targets that lead towards a sustainable future. For example, there are no specific figures used when discussing reductions in emissions.

Environmental charities having been quick to voice the fact that they do not feel enough has been done.

For example, the executive director of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, stated that "Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology, and failed on economy."

The WWF was also scathing, saying that if targets are not improved, the conference "will have been a colossal waste of time."

Even usually diplomatic leaders could not contain their disappointment, with Nick Clegg quoted as saying "It may not be as ambitious as if I were able to write it myself....” and the French President, Francois Hollande, telling those present that he would like to have seen specific funding goals set.

What was striking about this conference was how little hype or interest there appeared to be leading into, during, or after the event. The entire conference seemed smothered by mainstream apathy. Considering that it was the largest UN conference ever held, and was attended by a plethora of world leaders, the fact that it barely made evening news bulletins is baffling in the extreme.

Perhaps the conference was the victim of bad timing in this respect. It is not hard to believe that if the topic of the conference had related more to the world’s financial system (or perhaps even goal-line technology) then it would have been followed with more attentiveness. However, for the conference leaders to hide behind poor viewing figures would be unhelpful in the bigger picture. The UN had a chance to make a real difference to the direction and ethical structure of global business and didn’t.

In the future, this conference will surely be regarded as a footnote in the battle against climate change, particularly relative to its predecessor and parent conference in Rio twenty years ago.

Sources and Further Reading

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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