No great expectations from the Rio+20 summit

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Business Bhutan, Rio de Janeiro

All indicators point that the global summit to define a sustainable development path for the world may have failed in Brazil

By the time this paper went to press late yesterday night, leaders of more than 130 countries gathered at the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil had only a 49-page document to secure a sustainable future for the world.

World leaders, Prime Minister of Bhutan included, were deliberating and finalizing the text of the much trimmed-down document that is expected to become the bible for the world’s survival. The leaders will declare the final outcome of the Global Sustainable Development Conference in the early hours of today morning corresponding to June 22 in the Brazilian city Rio de Janeiro which is nine hours behind Bhutan Standard Time.

Negotiators from countries all over the world deliberated on the outcome document for about five months and finally toned the more than 100-page document to 49 pages in the final phase of negotiations lasting three days before the High Level Conference attended by world leaders starting June 20.

Despite claims of United Nations officials that the 49-page outcome document is still good enough to be called a success, many quarters including developing countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and environment activists have already downplayed any major expectation and are already calling it a failure.

Moreover, the language of the text has been toned down in a manner that doesn’t include definite commitments further denting positive expectations. The final negotiations went to the extent of evaluating every comma of the text in some cases. The resultant document is criticized for ignoring sensitive issues of setting targets for a green economy which is a major subject of the text.

Though the world leaders can decide to completely overhaul the text and bring out a more favorable one, the probability is against its odds.

Delivering his speech in the opening session on June 20, Bhutan Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigme Y. Thinley clearly outlined his expectations of the Summit: “Life, after all, is not negotiable and yet, this is what our delegations have had to do in preparing an outcome document that takes care of all sensitivities and accommodates all kinds of doubts and suspicions of member states. And so, long in words, this document will fall far short of what must be done.”

As early as last week, the head of WWF’s delegation in Rio+20, Lasse Gustavsson, said that the negotiations are “in a mess” and said there is a need for a “political miracle” to turn things around. The international environment group, Greenpeace, has described the draft outcome text as “pathetic” and an “epic failure.”

In an exclusive press meet, the chief climate negotiator of Bangladesh, Quamrul Chowdhury, said that of the 383 paragraphs in the 49-page document, “some of the paragraphs are good but some are not favorable.” Quamrul Chowdhury is also a senior negotiator for the G-77+China which is a group of 77 least developing countries and China and negotiates as a bloc in global negotiation tables.  

He said the world would “have to wait for a couple of more years “till the concept of “green economy” is implemented. While developing countries originally wanted to get finances for converting into a green economy, the clauses have now been changed to say that it will be raised from innovative sources meaning that an expert group will now have to be formed to look at resource mobilization aspects which further means that it may take a few more years to finalize it. “But developing countries are facing sustainable development problems right now and we require support right now,” he said.

Quamrul Chowdhury said that the commitments singed in the historic Earth Summit of 1992 has been “watered down and the question of equity is missing in many paragraphs.” He opined, “It is sad but it is part of the negotiations.”

It has also been informally agreed that the much talked about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which was slated to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after it expired in 2015 will not be finalized at the Rio Summit but will be left to the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. It means further delaying the process.

The Brazilian delegation which led the finalization of the draft outcome document insisted that it was still favorable. “This is a very good result. We have a result to begin with. Yesterday (before the draft was finalized), there was a worry that we may not even have a result,” said a senior Brazilian diplomat.

The absence of “big players” like US president Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Summit has also been hugely criticized.

Explaining the absence of president Obama, the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, told a select group of media including Business Bhutan that the Summit is important to the US and it was well represented by the secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “She happens to be somebody who is a world figure in her own right so I think the United States is well represented. And President Obama, along with any number of other leaders, has not been able to come,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of world leaders changing the outcome document, Todd Stern closed the option that it would be discussed further. “I believe this document is done.” He added “I think that the Brazilians have no plan or intention to let the document open up. And I think there is a very good reason for that, which is that everybody has things that they really don’t like in the document in one way or another… It's just the way these things go.”

It appears pretty clear that the final day of the conference is not going to bring any miracle around.

Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley described the importance of this Rio Summit aptly when he said it was the “last opportunity for humanity to prevent its own extinction.” He added “Let us seize the opportunity here and now, for in another twenty years, humanity will have crossed the point of no return.”

The conclusion seems pretty obvious.