The agreement, widely criticized for its watered-down ambitions, was overshadowed by a flurry of financial commitments and side deals announced at the three-day U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development.
Government leaders, bankers and corporate CEOs took advantage of the gathering of 50,000 people — the largest meeting in U.N. history — to announce new partnerships, programs and investments.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the $513 billion in commitments "a significant legacy of this conference — billions of dollars' worth of actions and investments that will have the power to transform lives across the globe."
To some of those present, the conference presented a new model, a global gathering to inspire government and corporate leaders and others to move ahead and build momentum — rather than waiting for world leaders to reach consensus on a treaty to address climate change or other environmental matters.
"We cannot be boxed in by the orthodoxies of the past," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech to delegates of more than 190 nations. "We need fresh, agile, action-oriented partnerships that can produce results year after year after year."
Clinton announced an agreement with 400 major food and agriculture companies to halt deforestation, and partnerships with African nations for clean-energy projects.
The world's largest development banks vowed to invest $175 billion in energy-efficient public transport in poor countries. Mayors vowed to shrink their city's carbon footprints. Educators vowed to change economics classes, and even questions on the SAT and GMAT exams, so that students learn about sustainable development.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister and former World Health Organization director, was heartened by all of the proposals for "sustainable development," which she defines as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.''
She gave the 49-page negotiated document, titled "The Future We Want," a mixed review. It had few major breakthroughs, she said, but didn't backslide either.
Negotiators came under enormous pressure to avoid an embarrassing failure, as happened in Copenhagen in 2009 over a new climate treaty.
The conference, known as Rio+20, was broader in scope. It was called 20 years after the 1992 first Earth Summit here — under vastly different circumstances.
The European debt crisis and the sputtering U.S. economic recovery made wealthy countries shy from new financial commitments to help developing nations.
As a result, the plan often lacked specific goals and timetables, which U.N. officials say are needed to provide for a growing population of 7 billion, at a time when fresh water, thriving oceans, arable land and a stable climate are under stress.
"For too long we have behaved as though we could … indefinitely … burn and consume our way to prosperity," Ban said. "Today, we recognize that we can no longer do so."
The master plan mostly reaffirms past commitments. But it also calls for more protection for the oceans, specifically curbing marine pollution and overfishing.
It proposes that all nations adopt "sustainable development goals," with the details to be worked out before 2015.
"It's too soon to tell what will be the legacy of this conference," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. "Sustainable development goals could be it. Concise, well-written goals could inspire a generation of action. We need the inspiration."
The closed-door negotiations also brought up a decades-old fight over women's rights, specifically over their right to control fertility.
The Vatican, an official observer at U.N. negotiations, persuaded a few predominantly Catholic countries to join a couple of conservative Muslim nations to insist that the words "reproductive rights" be deleted from the plan.
That brought a reaction from Clinton, and her only applause line: "Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children," she told the delegates. "And the United States will continue to work to ensure that those rights are respected in international agreements."