UN Rio+20 High-Level Summit Begins

By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development reaches its most important stage today, Wednesday, as the three-day High-Level Summit gets underway. Following months of preparatory meetings and negotiations, delegations from 193 UN member states have arrived in Rio de Janeiro, with some key leaders fresh from the G-20 Summit in Mexico.

Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the Rio+20 Conference, Brazil News

Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the Rio+20 Conference, photo by Jean-Marc Ferré/UN.

The draft text of the Outcome Document was only finally reached on the eve of the main summit, much of it proposed by Brazil. The host country’s official Rio+20 negotiators had taken the lead and worked to smooth over differences and secure a consensus for the draft that will be delivered to more than 100 heads of state and government.

Despite some countries continuing to show their dissatisfaction with parts of the text, after the final preliminary meeting the UN’s Rio+20 Secretary-General Sha Zukang said he was extremely happy: “Everyone has agreed. There’s a consensus.”

Political leaders will now hammer out the final details of the Rio+20 “Future We Want” Outcome Document of official pledges, that should be signed by participating member states on Friday, June 22nd. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has urged those taking part to make Rio+20 “historic”.

The UN’s Rio+20 Spokesperson Pragati Pascale, speaking to The Rio Times, said she was optimistic that the remaining differences between countries can be bridged: “I hope that all countries can come to a consensus on the way forward to tackle some of the big challenges we face.”

Ms. Pascale says that – alongside the pledges of the Outcome Document – governments, businesses and other organizations will also make “significant concrete commitments [...] to advance initiatives on sustainable energy, water, transport, education and many others areas.”

Sha Zukang, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Brazil, Brazil News

Sha Zukang, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Brazil Rio+20 Negotiator, photo by UN Rio+20.

While there is undoubtedly excitement in the air in Rio about the potential results the conference could bring, others fear it will produce precious few lasting results. Some members of civil society, NGOs and environmentalists are already claiming that the pledges currently on the table are not ambitious enough.

Differences between the traditional global powerhouses and the emerging markets and a reluctance to sign up to considerable financial commitments due to the state of the world economy have meant that some of the momentum behind the most ambitious goals has been lost: the creation of a US$30 billion development fund is just one such idea to be shelved.

U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs, taking part in the summit, said that the time had come to stop bickering and start putting plans into action: “It is not right to say this part of the world is right, this part is wrong. We are all in this together.”

The scale and urgency of this task cannot be understated: one billion people, one-seventh of the planet’s population, is currently undernourished, but concurrently, since the last Rio Earth Summit twenty years ago, the number of people on the planet has gone up by near a quarter, and as a planet we are now eating 26 percent more meat and 32 percent more seafood, which has its own impacts on the environment.