Rio+20 Earth summit concludes with few commitments

The huge Rio de Janeiro summit on sustainable development is closing with good intentions but the end results mean Canada does not have to lift a finger to fulfil the meeting's vision.

Countries agree to develop long-term sustainability goals - but without timelines

Environmental activists, one portraying Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff holding a banner symbolizing dirty money made from fossil fuel subsidies, shout slogans during a protest on the final day of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, June 22. (Andre Penner/Associated Press)

The huge Rio de Janeiro summit on sustainable development is drawing to a messy close and the end results mean Canada does not have to lift a finger to fulfil the meeting's vision.

Dubbed the Rio+20 conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth summit that set out a global path to protect the environment, the Brazilian meeting was everything that summits have become in recent years: a colourful event with demonstrations, celebrities, cultural celebrations, business round tables, intense social media and riot police.

'Canada's satisfaction with [the Rio+20 outcome statement] is as much as with what's not in it.'—Environment Minister Peter Kent

As far as content goes, however, the meeting produced a vision statement that contained plenty of good intentions but very few solid commitments.

Generally, countries committed to pay more attention to climate change, and increase aid for development. They also agreed to eventually develop long-term goals for sustainable development — global targets for both the environment and for eradicating global poverty.

Timelines and amounts were absent.

And that's a good thing, says Peter Kent, Canada's environment minister.

"It does not have unrealistic, inappropriate binding commitments," he told reporters in a conference call a few hours before the conference was set to end.

"It does point us, in my view, in a forward direction, but it doesn't have instant confections" that would duplicate existing processes, or commit countries inadvertently to harmful policies.

"Canada's satisfaction with this document is as much as with what's not in it," Kent said, adding he was "very happy, very satisfied" with the outcome.

While he said the federal government was in good company in this sentiment, other delegations and most environmentalists watching from the sidelines were dismayed.

NDP sees 'empty words'

"They have put forward neither new money nor new engagements," Anne Minh-Thu Quach, the NDP deputy environment critic, said in an email from Rio. "It's empty words again. Pitiful and shameful."

She and other critics took Ottawa to task for weakening commitments on biodiversity of oceans and fossil fuels and blocking financial commitments to developing countries struggling to deal with climate change — all while loosening environmental protections at home.

Kent rejects the criticism, saying his opponents are out of touch with reality.

The summit was meant to spur action on sustainable development, to make up for the fact that almost all of the commitments made 20 years ago were not kept.

The 1992 summit — which also took place amid economic turmoil and a simultaneous deepening concern about the state of the Earth — left a legacy of hope and led to several agreements that forced governments to re-examine their policies. The 2012 version ended in widespread frustration.

"We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points, as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities," said Norway's Gro Harlem Brundtland, former chair of the UN commission that spearheaded the concept of global sustainable development 25 years ago. "These are the facts, but they have been lost in the final document."

'Not everything is a failure'

The fact that the more than 130 countries in attendance could agree to a joint statement at all was hailed as a victory.

Among those who blamed governments for a failure to deliver meaningful results out of the summit was Jose Maria Figueres, a former Costa Rican president who now works with the UN.

"I would argue that governments have neither saved the planet nor saved face," Figueres said. "Instead of negotiators, we have no-gotiators."

Several hecklers attempted to disrupt Friday's closing news conference. One of the hecklers, 11-year-old Ta'Kaya Blaney, showed up wearing a traditional First Nations woven headdress and burst into a song she wrote about saving the Earth. She said her message was simple.

"We can't keep waiting till tomorrow to change because that's what we've been doing for 100 years. We must be the change," she said.

After months of negotiations among government officials to boil down hundreds of proposals into something manageable and meaningful, the final days of the talks leading up the summit saw the most tangible commitments removed from the text.

Despite widespread criticism from environmentalists and some delegations, government leaders opted not to reopen the text at the summit.

"The most compelling products of this conference are the models of new thinking" that will push countries into action, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"We will be judged by whether we deliver results."

But some of the more optimistic activists, as well as some of the delegations, argued that the summit was not a total waste of time.

ONE — the anti-poverty group founded by U2 singer Bono — pointed out that environmental groups, businesses and governments used the summit venue to make hundreds of individual commitments for practical measures that work toward sustainable development.

Plus, governments agreed that access to energy for everyone is crucial for development, social inclusion and gender equity. They also agreed to propel talks on ocean biodiversity forward later this year. And they recognized the right to clean and safe drinking water.

"We must recognize that not everything is a failure," ONE's Tom Wallace wrote in a blog.

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With files from CBC's Connie Watson