Monday, June 18th marked the beginning of the Rio +20 Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Similar in scope to the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, this follow-up summit 20 years after the first is another attempt to increase sustainable practices and address world poverty. World leaders were set to begin arriving on Wednesday, June 20th to look over the final text resulting from the summit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the US team at the summit, along with many other world leaders.
While it is exciting to see so many countries coming together to address the environment, it is hard to forget that this isn’t a novel idea. World summits have been occurring over the last 20 years, and to many people it doesn’t appear much has actually been accomplished. Arguments claiming flimsy goals and half-hearted pushes for change in policy have been common results of summits like Rio +20. In fact, a study by the U.N. Environmental Program has stated that of the 500 international agreements of the 1992 Earth Summit, only 4 have actually seen significant progress. Economic hardships around the world appear to have somewhat reduced people’s response to sustainability, and outrage expressed by participating governments at Rio +20 appear to show backsliding and reduced strength of sustainable development goals. Well known organizations like Greenpeace, WWF, and Oxfam have criticized world leader participants for their lack of leadership in approving significant goals from the summit. Instead, reaffirmations of goals set 20 years ago was a commonly occurring statement in the final text.
Decreased interest in the environment, clean energy, and pollution are common when the general public is under stress. When people are struggling just to keep their homes and feed their families, sustainability seems to go right out the window. So how much can we expect from the Rio +20 Summit during high US unemployment, the Eurozone crisis, and general slowing of world economies? It is said that the true character of a person only comes out during times of hardship. With almost no time tables, specific definitions, or ways of monitoring sustainable development, it appears that participating Rio +20 countries have shown their true character.
However, some participants at the summit noted that even if strong, decisive sustainable development goals did not reach the final text of the Rio +20 document, there is nonetheless proof that people all over the world are pushing for sustainability, with or without their governments. Maybe that is the key here, that huge summits in which hundreds of panelists and high level world leaders attend are just “too big to succeed.” Getting so many people together in one room to decide how to continue increasing economic growth without damaging the planet may not be possible, but as more and more grassroots organizations take on environmental issues themselves, perhaps there is enough energy behind sustainable development to finally bring worldwide change.
Image URL: http://www.europa-eu-un.org/pictures/Rio20_EN.png