Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – On Friday afternoon, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development convened. Dubbed Rio+20, the conference was the largest UN summit ever held and marked the 20-year anniversary of the original Earth Summit also held in Rio.
Attended by 50,000, the three-day conference brought together heads of states and delegates, business leaders and the private sector, the scientific community, civil society, NGOs and media.
In addition to host Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, 130 heads of state attended, including Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Bolivia's Evo Morales, China's Premier Wen Jiabao, France's newly elected President François Hollande, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. President Barack Obama, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.K.'s Prime Minister Cameron were not in attendance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended to represent the U.S.
As the summit kicked off, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 persons demonstrated on the streets outside.
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development seeks to address a range of issues: to reduce poverty, address world hunger, advance social inequity, ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are secured and prevent climate change.
The document that emerged from the Rio+20 conference, while not legally binding, serves as a roadmap for sustainable development.
Late Tuesday evening, delegates approved a draft of the document, entitled "The Future We Want", which was presented to and ratified by heads of state at the summit's end on Friday.
Although is not unusual to have a draft document hammered out early on to present to heads of state, it is unusual for the document to be considered a done deal prior to the heads of state's arrival.
As early as Tuesday, delegates expressed widespread consensus in support of the document, raising eyebrows. At a press conference on Thursday, UN representatives underscored that while the final decisions lay with heads of state, there was "political agreement" on the text.
To be sure, most delegates expressed frustration with some aspect or another of it, but they were weary to begin work anew on the text, stating it would be akin to opening a Pandora's box.
As U.S. lead climate negotiator Todd Stern put it at a press conference: "It is a negotiated outcome, a negotiated document with a lot of different views from a lot of different players. … It isn't everything to everybody … Everybody had things that they were more and less pleased about … I believe this document is done. And I believe that that's the intention of our Brazilian hosts … So I think the Brazilians have no plan or intention to let the document open up."
Rio+20 Lambasted for its Failure to Address Reproductive Rights
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development also seeks to ensure social equity, for women, youth and children.
At a high-level event Thursday at the Rio+20 Conference organized by UN Women, female heads of state signed a call to action with concrete policy recommendations on integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment in all sustainable development frameworks.
Signatories included Australia's Prime Minister Gillard, Brazil's President Rousseff, Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla Miranda, Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women.
But the call failed to mention reproductive rights.
Gro Harlem Brundtland — former Prime Minister of Norway, Chair of the Commission that brought the concept of sustainable development to international attention 25 years ago, and a member of The Elders, stated "regrettable is the omission of reproductive rights — which is a step backward." In a press conference, Brundtland called for the "full equality of women."
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 there was unanimous agreement that sustainable development cannot be realized without gender equality.
NGO's Demand an End to Fossil Fuel Subsidies
NGOs criticized the Rio+20 draft text for its failure to demand an end to fossil fuel subsidies; its failure to mention and critique nuclear energy in light of last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster; and its failure to promote a shift to renewable energy.
The global campaign group Avaaz — in a campaign sponsored by over 1 million people — took out advertisements in Friday's Financial Times calling on Brazil's President Rousseff to demand a timeline for the ending fossil fuel subsidies at the UN Rio+20 Earth Summit.
The ads, which urge her to be the Lady of the Rings, call on leaders to take $1 trillion tax dollars from Big Oil and reinvest it in green energy by 2015.
Ricken Patel, Executive Director of Avaaz, stated "The biggest environmental summit in 20 years rests on this one critical decision: Will Dilma stand with the people or with polluters?"
Earlier this week, Avaaz and 350.org unfurled enormous trillion dollar bills on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro in conjunction with the Rio+20. They circulated a petition, which over 700,000 signed, calling on leaders to end fossil fuel subsidies. It was delivered in Los Cabos, Mexico to heads of state at the G20 meeting but continues on-line, seeking to continue to bring pressure on representatives in the U.S. to shift subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Reclaiming Nature: Green Economy or Sustainable Development?
Another group, the World Development Movement, underscored its belief that the Rio+20 conference was beholden to economic interests, placing profit before the sustainability of the planet, by launching the "Green Nature Sale", putting places such as the Amazon Rainforest and the Lake District up for auction at Ebay on Wednesday. (EBay later cancelled the listing.)
The Ebay posting was timed to coincide with the "Natural Capital Dialogue" held at Rio+20 by the World Bank and the UK government.
Kirsty Wright, World Development Movement said, "The UK government is promoting the sale of nature to the highest bidder. We set up the Rio+20 nature sale on Ebay to demonstrate how ridiculous this is. By selling off iconic natural sites such as the Amazon rainforest and the Lake District, we are simply following the UK’s approach that the intrinsic value of ecosystems can now be quantified and that they can then be owned, speculated on and ultimately sold off to whoever has the most money."
At Rio+20, the World Bank offered a session on "Inclusive Green Growth," while the International Monetary Fund offered a session on tax and subsidy reforms for a "Greener Economy."
Reclaiming the UN: Green Economy or Sustainable Development?
On Friday, Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Friends of the Earth, International met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to deliver a statement from civil society denouncing the corporate domination of the United Nations.
Bassey delivered the statement to Ban Ki-Moon at the People's Summit, which Friends of the Earth co-organized and which kicked off prior to Rio+20.
The statement was signed by more than 400 organizations representing millions world-wide. It forms part of Friends of the Earth International's campaign "Reclaim the UN from Corporate Capture, “which also included the launch, on the eve of the Rio+20 summit, of a report exposing the increasing influence of major corporations — such as Shell, Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Coca Cola and PetroChina — and business lobby groups on the UN.
Bassey stated: “Politicians are spinning this outrageous deal as a victory but in fact it is nothing less than a disaster for the planet. This is a hollow deal and a gift to corporate polluters that hold UN decision-making hostage to further their economic interests."
Reclaiming the Economy: No More Business as Usual
In addition, to these various criticisms of NGOs and activists of both the draft text and the UN process, one question starkly looms: What is the best way forward to ensure sustainability for both the economy and the environment?
As Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, conceded at this closing press conference: "The environment is now increasingly defining the economic space."
At the Friday afternoon press conference, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, stated that environment, economics and equity are often viewed as three separate pillars. But they are deeply tied and issues related to them cannot be addressed separately.
And while most world leaders, he said, understand the science and the impact of climate change on people and the planet, they do not go beyond that understanding to act and time is running out. "We are playing political poker with our future of our planet," he said, "by not acting with the urgency that the situation calls."
To that end, he argued, "as we are telling governments that it cannot be business as usual, we, as activists, must also tell ourselves: It cannot be business as usual."
Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic who covers international climate negotiations, domestic energy policy and related direct actions. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Progressive, The Nation and the Wall Street Journal. This article was originally published by The Progressive.