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Rio+20: What Happened inside the Walls of the Earth Summit

The 2012 Earth Summit was a roller-coaster of emotions. At first, it was a new opportunity for governments and civil society to restructure the current framework of negotiations to get a binding, strong agreement. People were hopeful; this could have been the conference that changed leading countries into powerful commitments focused on sustainable development.

This could have been, but it was not.

The future we want?
Around 100 heads of state and government negotiators came together for three days in Rio de Janeiro, to establish better ways to implement international politics into commitments at the United Nations Conference of Sustainable Development. The main topics focused on green growth, environment and the eradication of poverty.

Unfortunately, there was a huge gap between expectations of developing and developed countries regarding financing of sustainable development. At one point, the developing countries refused to negotiate as part of a green economy until such time as the developed countries were able to state how much they would fund to promote it. But no number was agreed. Because of the current crisis in the European Union and the United States, the developed countries refused to commit to any additional funding actions to promote sustainable development in other nations.

A proposal made by the Europeans was the creation of a world environment agency that could replace the UNEP, but they encountered opposition from Brazil and the United States to strenghten the current system. In the text it is not written that it should be upgraded to a UN agency, nor increase the power of this body.

On green economy, another fundamental topic of the summit, the document recognizes that there are different approaches and visions available for each country, depending on their circumstances and priorities they have to achieve sustainable development. Yet, there are no established goals. Negotiators and experts will continue this discussion in September.

Disappointment among civil society
Non-Governmental organizations and civil society have complained, arguing they were only consulted at the last minute, when it was almost impossible to make suggestions or put pressure on the changes of the outcome. Considering the document’s weakness, they have expressed their will to start working with an “even greater vigour”.

Kumi Naidoo, current head of Greenpeace International, expressed his concern by saying that the text was a failure of the whole process. He also mentioned the lack of commitment from governments: “The whole process was made by delegates, not heads of state, this shows how little vision and ambition there is”.

Apart from the few innovative commitments showed in the final outcome, there are some other proposals, those that were discussed and negotiated throughout the conference. The first one is the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals, taking the place of the Millennium Development Goals from 2015. Another good initiative enunciated by UN Secretary General was the establishment of a “zero hunger” aspiration, associated with sustainable growth among countries.

During the last day of the summit Jeffrey Sachs, academic and director of Earth Institute at Columbia University, gave an inspiring speech to young people attending the conference: “You are luckier than you think. Now that governments are acting on the same economic model of short-term and election cycles, you cannot expect big solutions.  And this is your opportunity, now it is young people who must achieve this change with innovation, we should all be pioneers.”

People, businesses and civil society realized it will not be the result of governments alone but expected of them too – to commit and contribute with their own projects towards a more sustainable future.

Rio+20 Poster Future

The youth present at the summit coloured the building with art, sending messages for their negotiators showing the "future they want". Photo: Andrea Arzaba

Rio+20 Plenary

The Rio+20 plenary. This is the place where a three-day-marathon of speeches by Heads of State and Government, Vice-Presidents or Ministers was run. Photo: Jan Stejskal/


Rio+20 Police

During the conference, Rio de Janeiro became a heavily policed city. Cops were literally on every corner on the way between accommodation facilities and the conference venue… Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Rio+20 Army

… While important places in the city and round the conference venue were guarded by heavily armed security forces. Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Rio+20 Suzuki Figueres Trilford

Christiana Figueres (centre), head of the UNFCCC, next to two young women who have represented youth during the Earth Summits: Severn Suzuki (left) and Brittany Trilford (right). Photo: Andrea Arzaba

Mexican negotiators in RIO+20 dialogue with civil society discussing not only on RIO+20 but also other international processes – in this case, G20. Photo: Andrea Arzaba

Rio+20 Food Court

Food court at RioCentro. Negotiators and civil society eat together, complaining about the high prices of the meals. Photo: Andrea Arzaba

Rio+20 Bottles

Some sponsors of the Earth Conference are multinational companies like Coca Cola and Unilever. This is a plastic bottle fence, made of brand new bottles. Photo: Andrea Arzaba

Rio+20 NGOs

NGOs came together, working on the different possible scenarios that might be the result of the summit. Photo: Andrea Arzaba

Rio+20 Matthew Maiorana
Even on the final day of the conference the campaigners tried to persuade politicians to do something on fossil fuel subsidies. The reason for this was that it was money partly behind ”no commitments” in the outcome document. When the negotiations were taken over by Brasil on 15 June, only some two fifths of the conference outcome had been agreed. Brasil then pushed everyone to agree with its proposals. Many delegations, especially from the developed countries, were not satisfied with the text, but the position of developing countries was clear: if you want more commitments in the text, you must agree to offer more financial help to developing countries to help achieve them. And the developed countries, stuck in an economic crises, didn’t commit to raise the funds. “Governments say they don’t have money to support sustainable development. But the amount currently spent on fossil fuel subsidies each year is $1 trillion dollars! If we were going to achieve sustainable development, we must end fossil fuel subsidies,” said Matthew Maiorana from Avaaz (in the picture). But politicians in Rio failed to agree even on this proposal and just reaffirmed previously adopted text asking to phase out not all, but only “harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development”. Photo: Jan Stejskal/
Rio+20 Ban Ki-mun

"It has been a successful conference," said the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-mun in his closing statement of Rio+20. However, large part of delegations were disappointed with the outcome document of the conference, regarding it as weak. Even the UN Secretary General pointed out that the main result of the conference is not the political document, but will for change and voluntary commitments. "About 700 commitments worth hundreds of billions of dollars have been publicly announced here in Rio by governments, multilateral development banks, the private sector and civil society," said Ban Ki-mun. "These huge numbers give a sense of the scale and growth of investment going into sustainable development. They are part of a growing global movement for change. Our job now is to create a critical mass. An irresistible momentum." Photo of Ban Ki-mun in Rio: Jan Stejskal/

Rio+20 End

The very last minute of the Rio+20 conference. The President of Brasil and the President of the conference Dilma Rousseff, together with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-mun, closed the UN Conference on Sustainable Development with the thud of a gavel. According to Dilma Rousseff, the outcome document is a great step forward… Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Rio+20 Mittler Greenpeace

… But many politicians and almost the whole NGO sector had a different view. "We have seen an epic failure at Rio+20," said Daniel Mittler (seen above), Political Director of Greenpeace. And his colleague Lasse Gustavsson from WWF added: "After two years of sophisticated UN diplomacy they arrived with something that will give us nothing else than more poverty, more conflicts and more environmental destruction… This conference has not been supporting sustainable development, so greening our economies will have to happen without blessing of all of the world leaders present here in Rio de Janeiro today." Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Rio+20 David Suzuki

Some of activists didn't even expect that Rio+20 could end with a positive political outcome. "I'm not interested," replied David Suzuki (in the picture) to the Thinkbrigade reporter when asked what he thought about the outcome document. "I knew there wouldn't be anything… There is no intention of any of them to meet whatever they say and to live up to it. Because there is no accountability. None of the leaders at 1992 are here today. So who is accountable for the fact that they didn't even live up to those promises?" As he said, he came to Rio just as a babysitter for a child of his daughter Severn. And her view? She was pretty disappointed with the outcome of the conference. "The real story of Rio+20 is that we have a crisis of governance," said Severn Suzuki. Photo: Jan Stejskal/

At the halls of Rio Centro, the future of the world was in leader's hands.

At the halls of Rio Centro, the future of the world was in the leader's hands. Photo: Andrea Arzaba



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About The Author(s)

Andrea Arzaba


Journalist, interested in environment, culture and development. Blogger for different online publications such as Global Voices Online, Adopt a Negotiator and founder of The SunFlower Post project. Andrea has participated in international peace initiatives such as People to People’s Peace Camp, Clinton Global Initiative and in several World Youth Congresses. She has also been invited as a panelist on Journalism, Youth Leadership and Mexico in Montreal, Moscow and Quebec. Today she is finishing her last year on a BA on Communications, focusing on Journalism, and she is a freelance writer for National Geographic Traveler. She is based in Mexico City.

Comments (1)

  • Mafalda Marques

    I was rather disappointed by the the political outcome of the summit – but that didn`t come as a big surprise….what really made me confident were speeches like that by Severn Suzuki and small, personal initiatives from people like you and me…just look at this guy, who decided to stop using his car and rather walk to work.
    I wish, more people would stop waiting for the politicians to kick off a change, but start to change something themself.


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