Green Gathering

Is the Rio+20 Environmental Summit a Failure?

Rio+20, 20 years after the famed Earth Summit, looks like a bust as world leaders arrive. By Mac Margolis.

Victor R. Caivano / AP Photo

Even on a good day, rush hour in downtown Rio de Janeiro can be miserable. But add a war party of Amazonian tribesmen painted for battle and a roadblock of topless feminists protesting the “commoditization” of nature, and the makings of an urban meltdown are complete. Welcome to green gridlock, the traffic jam to save the planet.

With some 130 heads of state converging in Rio for a summit on the parlous state of the global environment, scores of green groups, ethnic militants, and social movements also are grabbing their share of the ink and glory. A circus actor dressed as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff spat fire to dramatize slash-and-burn agriculture. A warrior in a yellow headdress drew his bow and sent security guards diving for cover at a bank that is bankrolling a huge hydroelectric dam that Indians say imperils the rainforest. A battle tank made entirely of bread took aim at a hillside slum in a call for food, not weapons. Everyone has a shtick at Rio+20, shorthand for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. And with 50,000 people expected at a massive rally Wednesday, the plot—and the traffic—will only thicken.

Judging by the decibels and drama, Rio+20 already is a smashing success. But thanks to the gridlock inside the official negotiating hall, the global green gathering looks less auspicious. Brazilian diplomats gamely took over the stalled negotiations over the weekend and by Tuesday managed to hammer out a final conference document, comma by comma at times, just in time for the presidents and premiers to pull into to town on Wednesday. Reporting “significant advances,” the Brazilians headlined the call to beef up the authority and funding of the underperforming U.N. Environmental Program, a proposal that must pass muster in the General Assembly later this year. They also hailed the document as a triumph of “multilateral” decisionmaking, presumably a reference to the top-heavy process of past negotiations that favored the voices of rich and powerful nations over the rest.

But the conference document was short on specifics and sidestepped the delicate issue of setting targets for the “green economy,” a favorite talking point among green groups and companies but as yet only vaguely defined. Though debate had ended, there was a distinct “to-do list” feel hanging over the final draft of the conference document, which apparently had something to displease almost everyone.

Greenpeace dismissed the 56-page book to be signed by heads of state in Rio later this week as “pathetic.” “Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology, and failed on economy,” the group said in a statement June 19. The World Wildlife Fund called the document “less than satisfactory from any point of view” and warned that without further improvement the last year of negotiations “will have been a colossal waste of time.” It wasn’t just tree huggers who were distraught. The European Union also lamented the so-called Zero draft for its “lack of ambition.”

Green groups were especially disheartened over what they described as an attempt to forge consensus at any cost, noting the absence of targets for cutting carbon emissions and that a proposed $30 billion fund to foment sustainable environmental activities was red-penciled out of the final draft.

Perhaps this was in the cards. With the global economy staggered and the fate of the euro zone on a cliff, expectations that the international community would move boldly to halt dangerous climate change and accelerate the green economy may seem like wishful thinking. “The strong crisis affecting the Northern Hemisphere nations certainly caused these countries to pull back,” allowed Brazil’s chief negotiator, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo. It was lost on no one that while President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Los Cabos, Mexico, for the G20 summit of the world’s biggest economies this week, none of them will make it to Rio.

This is not the high road to Rio that was envisioned. Rio+20 marks the 20th anniversary of the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Sustainable Development, the famed Earth Summit, where leaders from some 110 nations launched a plan to marry conservation, economic growth, and social justice for the 21st century. Besides the bold Agenda 21, the Earth Summit delegates also penned important international treaties, such as the Convention on Biological Biodiversity, to safeguard flora and fauna.

Twenty years on, the report card on that gathering looks modest, at best. Emissions of greenhouse gases are up 50 percent since 1990. Last year, carbon dioxide emissions rose another 3.2 percent to nearly 32 billion tons, the highest level on record, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But not all the news on the environment is so dreary. Although global agreements continue to elude negotiators, green initiatives in individual countries and communities and among corporations are prospering. Energy is one example. While clean-technology sources such as wind and solar account for about 4 percent of global power supply, renewable-electricity generation increased by 17.7 percent in 2011, with wind power jumping 25.8 percent, according to the U.K. energy giant BP.

Natural gas, which spews out a third less carbon dioxide than oil and only half carbon of coal, is soaring. Not least in the U.S., where the surge in extracting gas from ultra-hard shale, or fracking, has ignited a new energy rush and helped slash greenhouse emissions at a record pace. With Americans cutting back on expensive gasoline and dirty coal, U.S. carbon emissions have dropped by 7.7 percent since 2006, “the largest reduction of all countries or regions,” concludes the IEA.

That’s not the only good news. China, notorious for its smokestacks and coal-fired power plants, is carpeting deforested areas with trees and tapping the market to cut greenhouse bases with local emissions-trading initiatives. Once tarred as a global villain for its scorched earth development policy, Brazil has deployed satellites and quick-strike ground patrols to crack down on rainforest predators, slashing the annual pace of Amazon deforestation by 75 percent since 2004.

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“Yes, we are in a race to stop a global climate catastrophe. But top-down approaches are problematic,” says Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “There’s been an incredible upwelling of actions of cities, towns, and among national governments. Communities, countries, and companies have to take things into their own hands.”

In a way, these actions are an outgrowth of the green agenda that was sown years ago, with a nudge from conferences like the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Such a patchwork approach to climate change clearly is not enough, and it's far from the Big Bang solution that eco activists demand. But while diplomats parse their tomes and treaties, it may be the greenest thing going.