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The long road to Rio+20 summit

In June, some 50,000 visitors are expected in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro for the UN sustainable development conference, taking place 20 years after the first Earth Summit was held there.
Last modified: 25 May 2012 20:11
Photo: AFP
On June 20, tens of thousands of people, including more than 130 heads of state, will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history. 

Their goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development. 

But with less than a month to go before the summit, negotiations on the outcome document have stalled amid diplomatic bickering. 

"The current pace of negotiations is sending all the wrong signals," said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ahead of a meeting on Rio+20 in New York this week. "We cannot let a microscopic examination of text blind us to the big picture ... we do not have a moment to waste." 

The conference is a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, also at Rio, which laid the foundation for the Kyoto Protocol, established the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention to Combat Desertification, and put the idea of sustainable development on the global agenda. Since then, global economic activity and consumption has only increased. 

This year, participants will review commitments made twenty years ago and attempt to set new targets to a more sustainable pattern of growth. 

One proposal would create "Sustainable Development Goals" similar to the Millenium Development Goals that have guided national policy and international development since they were developed in 2000. Another idea is to create a specialized UN body to monitor sustainable development. 

But there remains a big disagreement between rich and developing countries, who fear an agreement that could threaten their right to economic development. 

They want rich states to pay for environmental commitments made at the conference, a position the EU has challenged. 

Some rich countries, notably the United States, are against setting any firm commitments to sustainable development at all. 

The glacial pace of negotiations - and the haggling over nearly every sentence of the outcome document - has exasperated some diplomats and lowered hopes of a strong outcome. 

For example, the rather innocuous first paragraph in the original version of the document reads:
"1. We, the heads of State and Government, having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20-22 June 2012, resolve to work together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet."
These were some of the suggested changes to the 35-word sentence, with each edit attributed:
1. We, the [heads of State and Government [and high representatives –G77, New Zealand] / [representatives of the peoples of the world -US] [, Ministers, and other leaders including representatives of civil society including business and academia – Switzerland, Mexico, Canada] [, and other representatives of the peoples of the world, - EU, Switzerland, Mexico], having met at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20-22 June 2012, [and mindful of our responsibility to one another and to future generations, – Israel] resolve to [renew our commitment to sustainable development and –G77, New Zealand, Mexico] work together [for –US / to ensure – G77] a [prosperous, secure / happy and prosperous –G77 / inclusive - Montenegro; EU retain secure] [, peaceful – Switzerland, G77 delete] [, equitable – EU, G77; US delete] and [inclusive – G77] sustainable future [within a healthy and life supporting environment – Switzerland] for [our / all – EU] people [, present and future generations, - Switzerland, Mexico] [, our societies – EU; US, G77 request clarification] [and – G77 delete] our planet [and future generations –G77, Mexico].

[1. bis We reaffirm the need to promote integral and sustainable development, based on the centrality of the human person and grounded in the principle of the inherent human dignity and worth of each and every person. Such development should take into account both the material well-being of society and the spiritual and ethical values which give meaning to material and technological progress. - Holy See]
The current draft - at 80 pages - is still much shorter than previous iterations. The US has pushed for a document under ten pages. 

While international, multi-lingual negotiations like these are often messy and time consuming, some delegations now point the finger to Brazil, claiming is deliberately pushing for a weak agreement so that they aren’t embarrassed by a document that fails to gather international support next month.

"The Brazilians have to jump in, because it's their event, and they need to put a little political weight into it," said a European diplomat who has been following the negotiations.  

Ban recently sent his Chef du Cabinet Susana Malcorra to Brazil in light of growing concern that logistical preparations and political commitments were off-track.  

For their part, Brazil said they have been working from the sidelines on an expansive agreement.

"We want a very ambitious document because we are also convinced that sustainable development is the right answer," Andre Correa do Lago, Brazil’s chief negotiator, told me this week. "We identified it as the right answer 20 years ago."

Ban is holding meetings with delegations in an effort to push member states towards consensus. The UN has also planned a last-ditch round of negotiations in New York on May 29 to June 2, before discussions move to Brazil.  

"It's up to [leaders] to listen or not to listen," said Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to a small group of journalists over lunch at the United Nations. "But if they are not listening to the United Nations and these calls, then they are neglecting their duties as responsible leaders of this global community."