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Our Insights 3 Jul 2012

Rio+20 or Rio-20?

By Geoff Lye

At the end of the Rio+20 Summit Ban Ki-moon agreed to meet the 9 ‘major groups’ who have a formal role in the preparatory process and the conference, they include business, trades unions, scientists and young people’s NGOs. In practice, only four representatives of the groups were invited to speak. I was struck by the pointlessness of this process, just as I was by the main UN plenary sessions and by the inclusive RioDialogues which were billed as giving everyone a chance to vote on which issues were judged the most critical for world leaders to address, even though the final text was agreed by the time the results were announced. (Interestingly, the overall ‘winner’ was a call for fossil fuel subsidies to be eliminated while another high scoring suggestion was that taxes and incentives should be introduced to secure better environmental outcomes. Neither features in the final text).

So Ban Ki-moon listened politely to those allowed to speak, often distracted by advisers briefing him on other developments, and then the NGOs few minutes of fame were gone. I did not have a chance to pose a question, if I had been given the opportunity I would have asked Bank Ki-moon the following: “I came to Rio in 1992 as a father of four children and I am here today the grandfather of four grandchildren. Those of us who left Rio in 1992 full of hope that we would seriously address the huge environmental and development challenges would have been shocked to read the final text being signed up to today. Do you share our deep disappointment that we have wasted a whole generation – making little progress on any of the issues identified as critical 20 years ago?”

To his credit Ban Ki-moon has expressed reservations about the outcomes of this conference and NGOs have struggled to find rays of light but we should also not overlook the fact there have been some welcome advances. Thanks to Thompson Reuters for the following headline responses from some key NGOs selected for their positive comments, although it should be noted that these were heavily outnumbered by negative ones.

Oxfam’s Barbara Stocking, chief executive, on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “It’s been a painful birth but the vision of an ambitious set of goals on environment and development, applicable to all countries, is a solitary light in the fog of Rio.”

Christian Aid’s Alison Doig, senior advisor on sustainable development: “We’re pleased with much of what the text says on the SDGs – for instance that they must be universal, developed by a wide range of different interests and integrated with whatever replaces the Millennium Development Goals. But we’re disappointed that the text is so vague on how – and even if – the SDGs will be merged with what succeeds the MDGs to produce a single set of strong global development goals.”

Amnesty International: “For the first time at a major UN summit meeting, countries reaffirmed the right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Governments committed to work to progressively make access a reality for all”.

Ban Ki-moon had separately announced his Zero Hunger Challenge which was also well received:

ActionAid’s Sameer Dossani: “The good thing about the Zero Hunger Challenge is that it sets out an ambitious agenda. Ambition and urgency are exactly what the world needs right now with nearly a billion people living in hunger and no powerful governments taking a stand for meaningful solutions. The Rio summit outcome document seems unlikely to include any commitments to action on hunger – proof that countries are not taking these problems seriously. You can’t have zero hunger with zero money.

Oxfam’s Barbara Stocking: “Ban Ki-Moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge is a welcome ray of hope in a summit that has been shamefully devoid of progress for the almost billion people who go to bed hungry every night.”

And finally another NGO welcomed the good news that disability has been included in the Rio+20 Outcome Document. The Rio +20 Outcome Document, “The future we want”, has five specific references to disability.

So, 20 years on and despite some minor victories, overall little to show for it. I am not sure that I will be around for Rio+40, but if I am, I suspect that economic, social and environmental disruptions will have forced society to respond in ways that will make this conference’s conclusions seem irrelevant in both scope and scale.

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