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Copacabana Blues? Personal reflections after Rio+20

By Rio plus twenties

Rio+20 was exactly what I predicted a long time before: Public opinion shifted to call it a “lost opportunity”. It did not find any responses to (not even properly deal with) the biggest global challenges, such as climate change, the continued loss of biological diversity and the increasing gap between rich and poor. Some people even call it “Rio minus 20”, meaning that this summit was more a step back than anything else. But was it?

Rio de JaneiroFirstly, we need to acknowledge that the Earth Summit of 1992 retrospectively transfigured into something more successful than it actually was. Achieving acknowledgement of the interdependence between environment and development policies was a major challenge at that time – and we can doubt that today’s decision-making take this interdependence adequately into account. Besides that, there are still no conventions on forests (and many other things) and the political trenches between “the industrialized” world and “the developing” countries remain as deep as before. Many conflicts have largely remained unsolved, but became even more complex in the meanwhile.

Secondly, we need to realize that international politics are never an easy game to play – particularly when dealing with environmental and economic matters. Due to the consensus principle applied in UN conferences like Rio+20, a disagreeing party needs to be convinced and cannot simply be outvoted. This did not only make the lead-up to Rio complicated, but generally causes international negotiating processes to be slow and painful. Next to that, decisions on environment and development need to come with major structural and financial implications in order to have any effect. Therefore, these processes need a lot of time that we actually don’t have. Looking at the pressing problems of our planet, this can be very frustrating.

You have to decide whether to give up hope in international sustainable development negotiations, because they’re obviously not able to deal with global challenges. From an objective point of view, this would be a very rational decision: After 40 years of discussions on how to protect the global environment, 495 of 500 indicators show a negative trend today. The climate negotiations in the last couple of years have impressively shown us that the international community is not even able to cope with a single issue. How would Rio+20 change that?

At the second day of the ‘actual’ conference, about 150 civil society representatives, many of them youth, left the conference. After holding their own “People’s Assembly” for 3 hours, they handed in their conference badges and turned their back on Rio+20. Hanna Thomas, who was one of them, writes:

I left this process, not because I am hopeless, but because I have work to do. And our leaders, our governments, are getting in the way.

However, I did not leave. As many others, I invested an incredible amount of time and energy in Rio+20. I tirelessly tried to engage, encroach and intervene, went to three of those painful pre-negotiations in New York and countless meetings in Germany and Europe. I met awesome and inspiring people, learned a lot of new things and could (hopefully) teach and inspire some others. It was a unique experience to be involved both as a civil society (or youth) advocate and official adviser to my delegation. This opened a number of unique opportunities to influence the way how negotiations went.

Our work on the proposal to set up ombudspersons for future generations is a good example: While lobbying and advocating together with our friends and fellows in the Major Group, we were also providing our delegation with strategic advice on how to proceed. Our continued and coordinated political pressure surely contributed to the UN Secretary General keeping up the issue even when it was deleted from the text. Let’s see whether he delivers on his promise to appoint a special representative to his cabinet.

Let me be very clear: By engaging in the process, I don’t intend to defend or justify Rio+20. However, I’m not naive either: It is obvious that we’re not in a position to change those big decisions made in world policy.

Like so many others, I was therefore stunned by the Brazilian hosts enforcing an agreement with strong-arm tactics – before the actual conference started! Our “world leaders” did not even have a chance to discuss and negotiate about contentious questions, as they were simply put off the table before. Like so many others, I was shocked that not a single government was courageous enough to renegotiate the outcome. Like so many others, I had to realize that after all, politicians only flew in to each deliver their short speech and to applaud an outcome that was already set when the conference began.

Some are calling it fraud now – in order to become a subject of fraud, you need to believe a lie beforehand. Who was lying to us?

The whole process never made me believe that Rio+20 would be huge success and bring major achievements. All those proposals that would’ve made the outcome a bit stronger were highly contentious in the pre-negotiations and it never was clear whether there would be an agreement on them or not. With their tactics, the Brazilians surely stifled all those discussions and destroyed any hope for achieving a break-through at the end. However, we can not blame them for killing a spirit of optimism or special dynamics – this simply never existed in this process.