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The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development was the biggest United Nations conference ever, but it may be one of the biggest duds. It produced no major agreements — just a vaguely worded declaration that has been widely derided.
More than 45,000 people registered for the event in Rio de Janeiro, but diplomats couldn't even agree about the meeting's objective until 2:45 a.m. on Tuesday, just before heads of state and other high-level delegates started arriving in Rio.
They finally agreed to a long-winded declaration about alleviating poverty and leaving the planet livable for future generations. It was more platitudes than anything else, which sparked anger and disappointment.
Friday, on the final day of the conference, former Costa Rican president Jose Maria Figueres didn't even try to hide his contempt as he addressed the conference's secretary general, Sha Zukang, at a news conference.
"One thousand five hundred CEOs from 60 nations, global NGOs from all over the world, have come to your conference and committed to action," he said. "Those who have failed you, Mr. Sha, are the governments. Those are the ones that have failed you, sir."
Actually, conference organizer Sha replied, he did not intend to defend the conclusions. There were simply too many competing interests. It's not his job to make people happy.
"My job was to make everybody equally unhappy. If one party's happy ... then others are not happy. ... So equally unhappy means equally happy," he said.
Obviously, there is no consensus about what path the world needs to take to pull billions of people out of poverty in a manner that will sustain the environment and leave resources for future generations.
Sha, who is about to retire from his career at the U.N., then asked, what good are big promises, anyway? He pointed specifically to the ambitious pledges made at the big U.N. climate meeting in Copenhagen two years ago.
"Nobody forced you to make commitments. By why comply with the commitments? It's voluntary, but you're voluntarily lying to the people because you're not honoring them," Sha said.
Clearly, the meeting in Rio has raised some existential questions for the United Nations. Achim Steiner, who heads the UN Environment Program, pins lot of the difficulty on a new political landscape.
"Here in Rio 2012, despite, in a sense, the impression that this is still a debate between North and South, between rich and poor, between those who have natural resources and those who don't — in fact, the world is much more complex," he said.
There's the economic turmoil in Europe and the political divide in the United States. But also, emerging economies like China and India are suddenly big players still trying to balance economic development, the environment and social issues.
So did any good come from Rio+20? Manish Bapna, acting president of the World Resources Institute, says at least the world has agreed to work on a new set of goals to promote sustainable development.
"The next two, three years will be quite a bit of work in trying to define what they are, what they mean, how they can be achieved," he says. "But I think that could be an important outcome that emerges from Rio+20."
While that may sound like more just talk, the reality is that collective goals — like combating climate change, preserving the oceans and alleviating hunger and poverty — do require collective action and therefore consensus. The problem, of course, is that talk doesn't keep pace with the rapidly changing conditions on our planet.