By MARK MCDONALD, The New York Times
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development has wrapped up in Rio de Janeiro - contentiously so - marking two decades since the first Earth Summit was held, also in Rio, in 1992.
The recent three-day meeting was more easily known as Rio+20, but so few specifics, so few targets, so few tangible decisions came out of the gathering that some participants were derisively calling it "Rio Minus 20," or "Rio Plus 20 Minus 40."
"A failure of epic proportions" was the verdict from Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International.
3 days of empty rhetoric and greenwash from world leaders. #RioPlus20: a failure of epic proportions greenpeace.org/international/- Kumi Naidoo (@kuminaidoo) June 22, 2012
More than a year of "sophisticated U.N. diplomacy has given us nothing more than more poverty, more conflict and more environmental destruction," said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director for conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
"An outcome that makes nobody happy," was how Sha Zukang of China put it - and he was the Rio+20 secretary-general.
The final statement from Rio, "The Future We Want," is 283 paragraphs of kumbaya that "affirm," "recognize," "underscore," "urge" and "acknowledge" seemingly every green initiative and environmental problem from water crises and creeping deserts to climate change and overfishing. Women's rights, indigenous peoples, children, mining, tourism, trade unions and the elderly also get shout-outs in the document.
The word "reaffirm" is used 60 times.
As the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in an editorial:
To be sure, all of the great questions facing humanity make an appearance in the document, but without any attempt at a binding agreement. The Rio+20 conference, which really should have provided a new spark, has instead shined the spotlight on global timidity. Postpone, consider, examine: Even the conference motto - "The Future We Want" - sounds like an insult. If this is the future we want, then good night.If all countries are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, if they no longer want to discuss what needs to be discussed . . . then the dikes are open. There is no need anymore for a conference of 50,000 attendees. Resolutions that are so wishy-washy can be interpreted by every member state as they wish. No one needs Rio.
Mr. Naidoo called the final report the "longest suicide note in history." Jim Leape, director general of the wildlife fund, said it was "a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats."
#rioplus20 too much "take note" and "reaffirm" an too little "decide" and "commit". Big task now for UN nations to follow up #rioplussocial- Connie Hedegaard (@CHedegaardEU) June 19, 2012
One of the few things the summit meeting did actually decide: the establishment of "a universal intergovernmental high level political forum" to replace another U.N. commission.
The German tabloid Bild wrote: "Shame on you summit participants!"
"We've sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success," said Martin Khor of the U.N. Committee on Development Policy.
Many mealy-mouthed words coming out of #rioplus20. It's simply not adequate. Governments need a clear action plan virg.in/YrKRI- richardbranson (@richardbranson) June 20, 2012
The organizers and some activists took some solace in agreements and pledges being made on the sidelines of the official meeting. Australia and the Maldives are moving to protect large swaths of their boundary waters, for example, amid a wider recognition that the world's oceans are in trouble from overfishing, acidification and pollution.
The oceanographer Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence with National Geographic, said she heard from a fellow panelist in Rio that "we have to get over the idea that the ocean is too big to fail."
Otherwise, though, Ms. Earle said, "Concerning oceans, there is reason to suggest that the outcomes could be characterized as Rio+20 minus 40."
Both environmental activists and government negotiators seemed to agree that the Rio summit was perhaps too big to succeed, with its 188 government negotiators and tens of thousands of panelists, observers and attendees.
(Some of the more colorful moments were described by our colleagues on the Green blog, and on Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin looks at an initiative on sustainable energy led by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations.)
"I think the expectation that there is one document or one approach that can solve one of the major questions of our time - how do you maintain economic growth and protect the environment? - there's not one paper that can do that," said Kerri-Ann Jones, U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
In an op-ed in The International Herald Tribune, two Rio attendees wrote that government negotiators "spent months negotiating a document that ended up being watered down almost to the point of worthlessness because of their lack of vision and their governments' lack of leadership."
"But as presidents of two major environmental groups who attended the Earth Summit, we disagree that Rio+20 was a failure," said Frances G. Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice.
A condensed excerpt from their piece:
We can do this ourselves.We saw in the myriad Rio+20-related announcements from countries, communities and companies around the globe that they were taking action themselves - irrespective of any United Nations document.
We heard it from the young people who spoke at Rio+20 - sometimes through tears and with cracking voices - about the fears they have for the world we're leaving for them.The fact that 50,000 people came to Rio and that hundreds of thousands more participated virtually through technologies like YouTube and Twitter made that loud and clear. The incredible energy and the enthusiasm they demonstrated is only a hint of what individuals can do.
As our colleagues Simon Romero and John Broder wrote from Rio, even if the meeting laid out no enforceable goals or specific road maps, it perhaps signaled "a new assertiveness by developing nations in international forums and the growing capacity of grass-roots organizations and corporations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments."
Ms. Earle, the National Geographic explorer, was somewhat heartened that the summit meeting had again put a spotlight, if only briefly, on environmental issues that have perhaps been overlooked, diminished or pushed aside due to the world economic malaise and calls for government austerity.
We'd love to know your thoughts about Rio+20, and also about sustainability, green initiatives and the most pressing ecological issues. Are large-scale gatherings like Rio worth the time, the cost and the carbon footprint? Is sustainable development even possible, given the current state of the world economy? Should developing countries be held to less stringent rules on greenhouse emissions, for example, than developed economies? Think globally, act locally - for everyday folks is this the best way forward?