'The Future We Want' or an ‘epic failure’?

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aoifeogrady.com, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Heads of state and government of over 170 countries are tomorrow expected to adopt 'The Future We Want', the outcome text of Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

The 49-page document, finalised by negotiators in the small hours of Tuesday morning, sets out a common vision for sustainable development, focusing on the global shift to a 'green economy'. Criticised by many NGOs and generally acknowledged as a 'compromise text', it introduces the concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to complement the Millennium Development Goals, and outlines the need to mobilise financing for sustainable development and promote sustainable consumption and production. In particular, it reaffirms commitments to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

Greenpeace has branded the outcome an 'epic failure' that will “cook the planet, empty the oceans and wreck the rain forests”, while Wael Hmaidan, who addressed world leaders on Wednesday on behalf of all NGOs gathered in Rio, warned, “If you adopt the text in its current form, you will fail to secure a future for the coming generations, including your own children.” As the conference draws to a close on the eve of the official moment of signing, the dissatisfaction of civil society representatives grows ever more visible around the conference centre. Signs reading ‘Betrayal’ hang on strings for delegates to see and the thud of protesters’ marching out of the venue briefly interrupts the persistent filing of people from pavilion to pavilion.

Since the text was presented, NGOs have criticised the 'softened' language of the middle ground and the lack of firm commitments or figures. However most heads of states (or minister sent in their stead) who have taken to the podium on a rolling basis since yesterday have praised Brazil, the host, for managing to produce a text that could actually be agreed upon by all nations. Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Nick Clegg noted that with so many countries involved there would always be 'diluted language and compromise' but the essential thing is the 'direction that the text pushes us in'.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has praised the outcome document for the establishment of the SDGs and 'clear decisions and strategies on jobs, energy, food security, water, oceans, education, transport and cities' but warned that words must be matched by actions.

Ireland, which negotiates as part of the EU bloc, was represented at the conference by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. The Minister acknowledged that the text could have been more ambitious in relation to the SDGs but noted that the 'broad agreement' would chart a path for progress on critical areas. He particularly welcomed the agreement's “strong commitment to ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for present and future generations.”

Saba Loftus from Cork, one of the many thousands of civil society representatives on the ground in Rio, has been following preparatory negotiations for the conference since 2010, representing the interests of children and youth in the process. She noted, “The agenda put forward at the original Rio conference 20 years ago – Agenda 21 - was not strengthened here, it was actually weakened. It's our future that world leaders are playing with and they obviously don't care about it. That's why we're here – to make sure change happens.”

Mary Robinson, attending the conference as an 'Elder' – a member of the group of the world leaders working for peace and human rights - criticised the text for 'backsliding' on certain issues, particularly its failure to mention women's reproductive rights. She added however, “The UN has its drawbacks but it is the global way in which we move forward. It's a 'not great' text but it's the text we will work with. We have an energised community, a community that's angry and energised – maybe that will help us to hold governments and institutions to account for more progress.”