Rio +20: ‘The Future We Want’

Representatives from more than 190 countries gathered in Brazil this month to debate the future of sustainable development. Now 20 years on from the first mega-conference, John Vidal assesses how far the world has progressed and the objectives to come from the latest summit

It was the UN’s biggest summit in 20 years, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance for governments to address worsening environmental trends and eradicate global poverty. But while more than 190 prime ministers, presidents and other world leaders along with 50,000 delegates, environment groups, and businesses went to last week's Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development, not everyone returned convinced the world had turned a corner.

Rich countries offered no new money to help the poor; no new legally binding global agreements were made to reduce pollution or save water, and for all the heated exchanges, roundtables and discussions on oceans, energy, biodiversity and food, the language of the final document, called The Future We Want was, some believed, cautious and disappointing.

Green economy

But the UN and many countries including the UAE were more upbeat, pointing out that while there were no dramatic breakthroughs, agreement had been reached to set and adopt new sustainable development goals which would get countries to commit to new targets and timetables, and work towards a “green economy”. The conference, they said, aimed not to impose new laws on countries like the Rio Earth summit did in 1992, but to set guidelines for the future.

The UAE went with a team of four ministers led by Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the first woman to hold a ministerial post in the United Arab Emirates and now minister of foreign trade. In a major speech to heads of state and world environment leaders, she said that the emirates’ commitment to the environment was now much further-reaching than it was only 20 years ago.

“We have come to Rio to be active participants in the global effort to put the world on a sustainable path, and look forward to sharing with the world how a small and dynamic society is innovating and empowering to build a sustainable future for all. Clean energy is a central plank of our development strategy. We are innovating solutions in energy efficiency, water efficiency, building standards, and sustainable cities that we hope will have beneficial applications in our region and the world,” she said.

Clean energy

Earlier this year, Lubna added, the UAE had embarked upon a strategy of pursuing a Green Economy for Sustainable Development: “We are building Masdar City, a world-first low-carbon urban development powered by renewable energy and a test bed for cutting edge clean energy and efficiency technologies.

“The Masdar Institute, established together with the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, is the world’s first postgraduate university solely dedicated to clean energy technology. We are working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. This is challenging due to our cooling needs – a basic necessity in a hot arid environment – the need to desalinate water, and an energy intensive industrial base,” she said.

As is usual with global summits, rich and poor countries distrusted each other to act in anything other than their own interests and Rio +20 was no exception. Europe and the US had wanted a UN “green economy” roadmap with specific goals and targets but developing countries had many concerns, fearing this could lead to trade protectionism, and new obligations. It lead to confrontations between leaders, though in the end compromise was agreed.

UN political forum

But at least on one level there was wide agreement. One of the main problems with environment and development summits over the past 20 years has been that many declarations and action plans are made, but the institutions to implement or to police them have been too weak. So, one of the most important decisions made was to set up a high level UN political forum on sustainable development. This is intended to provide political leadership, set the agenda, consider new sustainable development challenges, review progress and improve coordination in the UN system.

If the new forum can have the mandate to act, a strong secretariat and high political backing, then the modest document coming out of the Rio+20 summit could be transformed into a world-changing process and organisation. In that sense, Rio+20 is only the start of a long and hopefully positive process.