Was the Rio+20 shindig a colossal waste of time, jet fuel, and stratospheric ozone? Well, yes and no.
Yes, inasmuch as it did manage to achieve the almost impossible: it under-achieved even the risibly low expectations held for it by the international sustainability community.
No, if the sustainability community finally wakes up to the fact that the development and environment ministries which dominated individual countries’ preparations for Rio+20 simply don’t have the political or financial firepower to even make a dent in the towering environmental, social and stability challenges of our time.
As an additional reconfirmation that Rio+20 might not have been entirely in vain, the inveterate optimist in me says that the “summit that never was” may have made a genuine contribution to global sustainability: it just may have been so utterly underwhelming that it has finally convinced even the most travel-happy UN bureaucrats to never, ever attempt such ill- conceived nonsense again. If it can accomplish even that much, it will have been well worth all the environmental destruction generated by the travel of its 50,000 delegates and hangers-on.
I fear, however, that this laudable goal will only be achieved if we can learn the lessons of Rio:
Lesson #1: Rhetoric has never been a reasonable substitute for action, and that isn’t about to change any time soon. Governments can “ encourage”, “recognize” and “reaffirm” all they like, but that will accomplish nothing, beyond perhaps deceiving the unwary into thinking something concrete might actually happen. Perhaps the most powerful game-changing sustainability policy work ever, the 2007 Stern Report on climate change, was commissioned by Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown through his Treasury (Finance Ministry). There’s a real lesson there. Let’s keep the sustainability action near the real power.
Lesson #2: 100 heads of state will rarely agree on what day of the week it is, much less specific prescriptions for enormously complex and intractable global challenges such as those posed by the sustainable development imperative. Witness the unlikely and unseemly alliance of the United States and Kazakhstan — yes, Kazakhstan — to water down the wording of even the anodyne language “encouraging” companies to report on their sustainability performance and challenges. Monty Python-esque springs to mind.
Lesson #3: A logical corollary of Lesson # 2: grand, global-scale, top-down efforts to forge inter-governmental consensus on long-term, complicated, inter-generational issues are actually worse than a waste of time if pushed solely through environment and developmental ministries. The governmental piece of Rio+20 accomplished literally nothing, in the opinion of this jaundiced observer (who is an alumnus of the original Rio Earth Summit). The 53-page Conference “agreement” document (titled, perhaps in jest, The Future We Want) was lamentably thin gruel, in the face of problems which are arguably even more acute than they were 20 years ago. Post-crisis global citizens in the new age of austerity (and the super rich) will no longer be fooled by grand summits convened by those with no real decision-making powers. Again, where were the finance ministries in Rio+20?
Next page: Kyoto Protocol, anyone?