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United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development
Special> United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development
UPDATED: July 1, 2012 NO. 27 JULY 5, 2012
Sustainability Stalemate
Expectations and doubts live on after the conclusion of Rio+20
By Zhou Jianxiong

General assessment

With a final agreement reached on June 19, in which the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" was put into the draft version, the United States said it was pleased with certain aspects and disappointed with others. Tod Stern, chief U.S. climate negotiator, was quoted as saying that "some countries swallowed things they did not want to swallow."

Some people have attributed developed countries' generally negative attitudes partly to the ongoing global economic recession, while others pointed out that it was the status of their national development that led them to set highly unrealistic criteria for developing nations' sustainability strategies and initiatives.

There was also a belief that at least some developed countries didn't pay due attention to global sustainable development. They cited the conspicuous absence of U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Rio+20. "I regretted President Obama didn't attend the meeting," said Phil Kline of Greenpeace U.S.A, an NGO based in Washington, D.C.

This was not the first time a U.S. president has failed to show up at a global meeting of this nature. Back in 2002, President George W. Bush boycotted the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, another landmark global conference, and under his leadership the United States became the only country among 192 signatory nations to fail to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aimed at fighting global warming.

Despite the fact that the developing South benefits from the inclusion of "common but differentiated responsibilities" as well as the North's promises in the Rio+20 final action plan, some developing countries expressed their regret over the lack of a clear commitment from developed nations for more aid and technology transfers. Bolivia delegates characterized this as "a step backward," an opinion shared by Kenya, Cuba, Venezuela, Egypt and some other Arab countries.

However, Du of the NDRC said, "The action plan is on the whole a good one, and so is the meeting itself, in particular because they addressed the concerns of developing nations... So long as Rio+20 made progress and didn't backtrack, or create unconquerable barriers to future global sustainable development, I would consider it a success."

A people's summit

While fierce debates heated up at the negotiation table between government officials, NGOs and business representatives from around the globe were also enthusiastically involved in Rio+20, both before and in parallel with the summit at the Rio Centro conference center, as well as downtown areas of metropolitan Rio de Janeiro.

Seminars, workshops, forums and demonstrations were launched as side events, which invariably centered on a great variety of sustainability topics, ranging from poverty relief, food safety and biodiversity to healthy ocean development, women's rights and corporate responsibility. These activities, called by some "a people's summit," as opposed to the political summit attended by world leaders, not only voiced global NGOs' concerns about sustainability issues, but also exhibited their great fervor in getting themselves deeply involved in the decision-making and counseling process of worldwide sustainable development.

Zhang Xinsheng, Secretary General of the Eco Forum Global, a Beijing-based NGO that hosted two forums at Rio+20, said Chinese NGOs should play a bigger role in pushing for the global cause of sustainable development. He pointed out that in the course of sustainable development today, it is no longer sufficient to rely purely on intergovernmental mechanisms. The initiatives of NGOs and individuals should therefore be brought more fully into play in the decision-making and implementation process of world sustainability initiatives.

Maurice Strong, former Executive Director of the UNEP and Secretary General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, echoed Zhang's view. He said compared with NGOs at the summit two decades ago, which had made a major impact on the decisions derived from the meeting, NGOs today had a more important role to play, partly because the current economic crisis has made sustainability issues a less urgent priority for many countries.

Strong said he believed there needs to be a "people's movement" coming out of the current summit, so that new momentum will be given to the role of the people through various social organizations. "It is the people that will make the difference, as the leaders cannot accomplish anything if they are not listening or responding to what people say and want," Strong said.

As Rio+20 drew to a close, the means of carrying out the action plan adopted at the summit became the focus of the global community. Du of the NDRC said the outcome of the conference will be carried out through follow-up actions, such as the opening of a high-level political forum, developed nations' provision of more financial assistance and technology transfers for developing countries, as well as the creation of sustainable development goals, and all these will depend on the joint efforts of the world community.

It will not be an easy mission, given the vast divergence of opinions expressed at Rio+20, and also the non-legally binding nature of the action plan itself. But since wider consensus has been reached on how mankind should live and develop rationally and sustainably, the future pathway of world sustainable development could be a more promising one, in spite of the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Email us at: zhoujianxiong@bjreview.com

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