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UN summit

June 23, 2012

The UN Rio+20 summit has fallen short of what many had hoped it would achieve. Environmental organizations describe the summit as a failure, while official delegates insist it still is a step into the right direction.

A sticker with a caricature of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with a chainsaw
Image: Reuters

"We encourage …," "we acknowledge …," "we invite all governments …" The final declaration from the Rio summit is full of such phrases. For three days, ministers and heads of government gave their prepared speeches. There was little actual negotiation going on at the summit - if anything it was just in a few working groups behind closed doors. The final declaration had already been pushed through by hosts Brazil ahead of the summit. And the international community agreed to it - for fear of a failure akin to the Copenhagen summit which ended without a final declaration.

Who is to blame?

The global community is left with a complete mess, with governments and NGOs putting the blame on each other. German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier who headed the German delegation in Rio said he was disappointed by the environmental organizations and NGOs. Only a few weeks before the summit had they proposed topics like the call for cutting subsidies for fossil fuel. "But they can not change the course of things within minutes or hours when that hasn't been prepared for months in advance," Altmaier said.

Peter Altmaier
Altmaier wants Germany to be a role modelImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace Germany dismissed the criticism. Germany and Europe in general were partly responsible for the summit's failure for having drawn up the declaration in advance, he said. "If Berlin and the other European countries really wanted to achieve something here, then they'd have to leave the final declaration open so the important issues could actually have been discussed at the summit."

Brazilian Environment Minister Izabelle Teixeira though vehemently rejected any criticism of the conference results. It was easy to say the declaration was not ambitious enough, she said, "but no one has really put any new money on the table."

Directing comments towards Brazil's BRICS partner South Africa, she added that it was contradictory for emerging nations to give money to the IMF for the eurozone crisis but not to designate more funds to fight climate change.

Solar panels
Rio+20 goals are reducing poverty and forcing rich nations to work towards a greener economyImage: VRD - Fotolia

Consensus on Green Economy

The fifty-page strong final declaration has the title "The future we want." One of the achievements is the added stress on UN environment program UNEP, the formulation of sustainability goals by 2015 and an expression of commitment towards "Green Economy." Environment Minister Altmaier admitted though that he had "mixed feelings" and that the "high expectations" were not all met so that there was some disappointment.

Altmaier said the EU would use the next UN General Assembly to push for Kenya's environment program to be upgraded to a proper UN environmental organization (UNEO). That would be a first step to turn UNEP into a forum to which all UN members would automatically belong. That would mean that "the environment ministers of all UN member states would have their own forum and therefore also more influence on global economic policies," said UNEP Director Achim Steiner.

No clear goals

For the rest, Rio+20 is a summit of postponing things. An agreement on protecting the high seas to regulate fishing and the extraction of resources from under the oceans is to be worked out only at a later stage. Sustainability goals for 2015 still need to be fully worked out. At least there's agreement that they should not only focus on the reduction poverty in developing and emerging nations but also force industrialized nations towards more sustainability.

This is where things come full circle: Green Economy was the key to ecologically friendly growth while also creating new jobs - at least that is what the UN hopes. But the final declaration remains vague on the issue: The concept was to help reduce poverty and stimulate sustainable growth. There are no concrete suggestions or even goals.

Hope for the future

The Rio delegates pointed out that the UN is only as strong as its members allow it to be. Experts point to the promise of new alliances between governments, civil society and the business world. What now needed to be done, said German Development Minister Niebel, was exactly "what Germany is giving an example of in Europe. We need to formulate ambitious goals with the hope that other countries will then follow the example."

Author: Mirjam Gehrke / ai
Editor: Richard Connor

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