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Analysis: What did Rio+20 accompish?

Analysis: What did Rio+20 accompish?

Sculpture at Rio+20 made of recycled plastic bottles.  Image credit: REUTERS / Ueslei Marcelino

Posted by contributor Andres Santamaria.

It has been said by some that the recent Rio+20 Conference was needed but did not deliver.  Some criticized the many meetings where no real concrete plans or timelines were adopted.  Others claimed that there is no substantial international driving force behind several of the abstract goals. Many believe it to be an utter failure, merely reiterating the same themes of the 1992 Earth Summit, while others see it as a starting point for some real change to come into effect.

One of the needs for a conference like Rio+20 comes from the sense of abandonment by local groups and communities which have been forced to take action themselves. However, it will take more than a couple of nights in conference halls to resolve many of the problems on the table.  Many key leaders wanted Rio+20 to be more than a foot in the door, they wanted to open it wider and earn serious recognition for sustainable development issues.  Rio+20 made grassroots activists more optimistic that they could make a bigger impact on the communities around them.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, identifies Rio+20 more as a catalyst for change. He believes that “Even a complicated, diverse world can address problems not through treaties, but by identifying the goals that then inspire decentralized actions.”

Sachs believes that many politicians are too short-sighted, and a room full of leaders won’t bring about direct change in the world. Real change will come from side agreements, not directly influenced by governments, that will offer new strategies. He goes on to explain, “Our governments are locked into old thinking, to old processes, to very powerful vested interests and to a short-term election cycle.

Goals that were discussed at the conference were published in 49-page text titled “The Future We Want”. These included:

  •  The integration of sustainable development goals into the United Nations development agenda by 2015.
  • Support for previous commitments by countries to phase out fossil fuels and to eliminate subsidies by 2020.
  • Strengthening of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) into an agency with similar powers to other UN-bodies such as the World Health Organization.

However the events that unfolded in Rio are evaluated, they still had an effect on the world, whether it be from actual agreements between countries to new solutions that will be adopted locally by individuals and groups in attendance.  One lingering question will be: Did Rio+20 draw attention to sustainable development in the same way that the Earth Summit did to environmental issues?