Negotiators have hammered out a text to be approved by world leaders meeting this week in Rio for a UN summit. But it remains unclear how the document can help put the world economy on a more sustainable path.
Even before more than 100 heads of state and government leaders arrive at the conference center in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday to kick off the UN Conference on Sustainability, it would seem much of their work has already been done.
Negotiators from around 190 countries working behind the scenes have agreed on a 50-page draft declaration. It calls for a transition to a "green economy," with more sustainable growth. But the text largely remains vague on just how that can be achieved, and fails to define goals or set a time table for achieving them.
'Burying' global climate protection
The draft declaration says individual nations will be free to choose their own path towards sustainable growth. It calls for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to be strengthened, improving protection of oceans and strengthening action to prevent illegal fishing and protect the climate.
But many environment groups and charities from around the world who are in Rio for the summit have expressed disappointment, saying the agreement is too weak: it fails to set targets and offers only watered-down proposals.
Hubert Weigert, head of the German environment organization BUND called the document "a burial of global environment protection."
Several government delegates however say the declaration has done the best it can.
The Rio+20 gathering comes 20 years after the legendary Earth Summit, also held in Rio. That conference marked the beginning of global environment protection efforts under the aegis of the UN.
The first Rio summit in 1992 paved the way for a global treaty on biodiversity, and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, which is due to expire this year. At the time, nations pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fight poverty and protect biodiversity.
But little has happened since then. In the last two decades, global emissions have risen by 40 percent. The current UN Conference on Sustainability in Rio is meant to take stock and send a new signal to set the world economy on a greener path.
Nations busy with other pressing concerns
At the conference center, some 40 kilometers outside Rio, German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier talks of the draft declaration as a tentative yet important first step towards changing the world's development track.
Altmaier, who took office only a few weeks ago, pointed out that several countries are currently too busy grappling with other pressing problems, such as the eurozone debt crisis, for them to want to focus on environment protection.
"We now have a good base for the next years," Altmaier said of the draft declaration. "It's not yet the big breakthrough but that was not to be expected given the current situation. But we've achieved more than what many would have thought we could a week ago."
Until a week ago, German delegates had complained that hosts Brazil were not ambitious enough in pushing ahead with work on the draft text. Controversy erupted as negotiators from Brazil presented their draft saying they didn't think that any changes were necessary and that the paper had to be signed off the way it was. However, several delegates from several nations hadn't even read the text then.
In a turbulent late-night session, European delegates in particular demanded improvements. Brazil finally gave in and the negotiators eventually agreed on a document.
Real teeth for the UNEP?
The draft agreement, though it's been criticized by many, may be significant for the UNEP which is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. The organization has an eloquent German head, Achim Steiner - but not enough money.
It gets around 300 million euros a year, given voluntarily by 50 nations. That might change if the draft document is approved. All UN member states will then join the UNEP. In a few years it could become a full-fledged UN organization like the World Health Organization (WHO).
The negotiations on ocean protection turned out to be a major sticking point. The European Union wanted to push through the establishment of marine protected areas in international waters. But the US and Venezuela were opposed to the proposal.
Brazil initially wanted to strike the issue from the text but finally gave in to European pressure and included the controversial point. But it remains to be seen whether that will really help to preserve oceans in the long run.
Changes to declaration unlikely
From Wednesday onwards, more than 100 world leaders are expected in Rio to attend the summit. They include French President Francois Hollande, Russian leader Vladimir Putin as well as presidents and prime ministers from the large emerging economies, including China, India, Indonesia and South Africa.
But US President Barack Obama will not be there and neither will UK Prime Minister David Cameron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are all sending ministers in their place.
German government sources have said Merkel needs to stay at home to deal with the raging eurozone crisis. It seems unlikely that the 100 leaders attending the summit in Rio will make any changes to the draft.
Author: Jens Thurau / sp
Editor: Michael Lawton