The Rio+20 conference last week was designed to provide a crucial update to 1992′s original Rio ‘Earth Summit’ on environmental issues, which introduced hugely important new international agreements including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Activists and governments hoped that the summit would provide an opportunity to develop ‘sustainable development goals’ which would set out how the world will achieve development for all within the constraints of world resources. But what was really achieved, and did it live up to the title of the summit declaration ‘The Future We Want’?
Germaine Umuraza, a delegate at Rio+20 for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, explained to TerraViva news agency why the link between poverty-reduction and environmental sustainability is so important: “A degraded environment stands in the way of girls getting an education. I feel a heavy responsibility to be in Brazil as a voice for millions of girls who could not be here to speak for themselves about the importance of education, because when the environment suffers, girls and young women are affected.” In her home country of Rwanda, for example, soil erosion affects agriculture and the availability of forest products such as timber and firewood. A shortage of firewood means that the young women who collect it for cooking are often forced to spend more time searching for firewood and less time on schooling.
With such vital issues under discussion, expectations were high, but the overall consensus is that world leaders fell short in Rio. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and chair of the Brundtland Commission which brought the concept of sustainable development to world attention said: “The Rio+20 declaration does not do enough to set humanity on a sustainable path, decades after it was agreed that this is essential for both people and the planet. I understand the frustration in Rio today. We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points, as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities. These are the facts – but they have been lost in the final document.”
An analysis of the final document from Rio+20 reveals much that is praiseworthy:
- It reiterates commitments to the right to education, including committing ‘to strengthen international cooperation to achieve universal access to primary education, particularly for developing countries,’ and conceptualises education as central to sustainable economic growth. There is also specific mention of the need to ensure equal access for marginalised groups including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, local communities, ethnic minorities and people living in rural areas.
- The section of the declaration on health also recognises its vital importance to sustainable development, stating ‘We are convinced that action on the social and environmental determinants of health, both for the poor and the vulnerable and for the entire population, is important to create inclusive, equitable, economically productive and healthy societies.’ The document pledges to ‘to strengthen health systems towards the provision of equitable universal coverage’ and recognises the urgent need to tackle major infectious diseases including tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS.
- Within the section on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture the document recognises the need of rural communities – particularly women – to access credit and other financial services and to secure land tenure. A more detailed discussion of financial services provision and education took place at the G20 summit in Mexico, which happened immediately before the Rio conference.
However, we and many other civil society organisations have serious concerns, both over some notable omissions from the document, and about whether the summit will lead to any action. Many organisations believe that the references to the ‘green economy’ – which could have been a real step forward – are just ‘greenwash’. Nicole Bidegain of the International Council for Adult Education office in Uruguay told IPS news “The green economy simply reinforces the current model of development, based on overconsumption and production. The same financial mechanisms that caused multiple crises since 2008 are being promoted, but this time to commodify nature. There is enough evidence on the negative impacts of the financialisation of nature on women’s rights and livelihoods.” In addition, gender issues receive a much weaker response than in the Agenda 21 declaration, made 20 years ago at the Earth Summit.
But the most concerning issue emerging from Rio+20 is the complete lack of pledges for additional action. The ‘implementation’ section of the declaration simply reaffirms previous agreements, and the finance section limits itself to calling on countries to prioritise sustainable development in the allocation of resources, without establishing any targets or deadlines. The startling lack of ambition is a real contrast to the Rio Summit 20 years ago, and has led international NGO Care to declare that the summit is evidence of ’20 lost years’.
The sole bright spot on the horizon is the commitment to create a set of ‘sustainable development goals’ in coordination with the process of revising the Millennium Development Goals in the run-up to the 2015 deadline. But it was hoped that the Rio+20 summit itself would provide the forum for these goals to be debated and decided. While civil society will continue to push for strong goals, there is widespread disappointment that Rio+20 has not added anything substantial.
The summit has made clearer than ever the lack of commitment from world leaders to fundamental change in the way we address international development. This was a summit for the haves, and offered very little for the world’s poor. The world must do better, and now is the time to mobilise for change.