The Rio+20 UN Earth Summit ended on Friday with leaders approving a 53-page declaration that casts new light on the profound divisions over how to tackle the world’s environmental and development problems.
The summit declaration, “The Future We Want”, encourages countries to introduce “green economy” policies to wipe out poverty without adding extra strains on food, water and energy supplies.
But it includes few firm or specific new commitments on how to achieve such policies, which many emerging economies see as code for rich countries protecting their wealth by braking the growth of developing nations.
Earlier efforts by some countries to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies or define specific sustainable development targets after 2015 were watered down. Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate commissioner, called it a document with “too much ‘reaffirm this’, ‘reaffirm that’, instead of ‘we commit’ or ‘we decide’” on concrete actions.
She and the head of Britain’s delegation, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, agreed there were some good building blocks in the declaration. These included its loose acknowledgement of a need to broaden traditional measures of gross domestic product to take account of natural resources, and to boost corporate sustainability reporting.
But Mr Clegg said the “disappointing” document, which the summit’s Brazilian hosts had tied down as early as Tuesday, was so weak that he had “spoken at length” with Brazil’s foreign minister about reopening negotiations to try to improve it during the summit.
He told reporters: “There was a moment where we thought, ‘Is this so far below our expectations that we should pull the plug on it?’”
But he and others in a frustrated EU contingent eventually decided that “if we’d sought to reopen the whole Pandora’s Box, we might not have come up with a better result”.
Mr Clegg said: “The unalloyed truth is whether it’s Indian concerns that green economy is a euphemism for protectionism, or Chinese concerns about some of the obligations they might have to meet …those voices have become much more forceful and this is the new, much more complex world we live in.”
Brazilian officials insisted that heads of state had long ago made it clear they wanted an agreed declaration text when they arrived, which did not require further negotiation.
China was more upbeat about the summit outcome, with Wen Jiabao, its premier, expressing relief that it had reaffirmed past UN declarations that poorer countries should not be expected to have the same responsibilities as wealthier ones.
Todd Stern, the US negotiator, said the declaration – which excludes earlier proposals for wealthy countries to provide $30bn annually from next year to developing nations – was “a good step forward”.
Environmental campaign groups were almost uniformly critical of what Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, branded an “epic failure” and of a summit that many said Brazil had handled poorly.
“With too few countries prepared to press for action, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff chose to drive a process with no serious content – to the planet’s detriment,” said Jim Leape, WWF International director-general.
Many in the unusually large gathering of business leaders at Rio+20 – named because it comes 20 years after the first Rio UN Earth Summit in 1992 – were more positive about the raft of private sector and development bank commitments issued during the conference.
“Twenty years ago, we were an afterthought. It was like, ‘Why are you here?’” said Chad Holliday, Bank of America chairman, adding that Rio+20 was very different.
Mr Holliday was in Rio to support a UN-backed “sustainable energy for all” initiative that he co-chairs, which has gathered $50bn in commitments to bring electricity to the 1.3bn people who currently lack access to modern energy services.
His co-chair, Kandeh Yumkella, the UN Industrial Development Organisation director-general, said projects included efforts to end gas flaring at oil platforms in Africa and redirect this energy – the equivalent of half of the continent’s current consumption – to producing energy.
“The answers to energy are in the private sector,” he said.
But even this measure has faced opposition from some oil-producing nations, which were concerned with the use of terms such as sustainable and renewable.
Partly for this reason, the scheme is careful to avoid prescriptive solutions and does not rule out oil and coal.
Other initiatives unveiled at the conference include a pledge by the eight largest multilateral development banks to spend $175bn to finance sustainable transport systems over the next decade.
More than 80 companies and 50 countries also committed to boost “natural capital accounting”, an idea the World Bank has been pushing to factor the value of assets such as clean water and forests into business decisions and governments’ national accounting systems.
Several stock exchanges, including the Nasdaq group and Brazil’s BM&FBovespa, pledged to boost efforts to encourage companies that are listing with them to disclose more about their environmental and social performance.
However, Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, said that while the “sustainable energy for all” initiative was very positive, it had been undermined by the lack of action on fossil-fuel subsidies.
“I’m sure the fossil-fuel industry will be very happy. I’m sure the clean-fuel industry will be very disappointed,” he said, adding that he was “particularly sad” about the lack of tough action on protecting the high seas.
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