Lots of ink have been spilled since months well before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed Rio+20) taking place from 20 to 22 June 2012 in Rio. Already in the run-up expectations were dampened as it became clear that there was little common ground between rich and poorer countries, between regions and different interest groups. So, we ended up with an aspirational document, full of good intentions, but with precious little concrete commitment to action and leaving just about everybody unhappy. Time to move on and call on civil society organisations, city councils, companies interested in going beyond green washing, governments of developing countries and others to find many old and new ways to make our societies fit for sustainable futures.

Already downgrading the expectations, no attempt was made to combine under one roof the conversations of the conferences of the parties to the three global conventions spawned by the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992 (commonly called the 'Earth Summit'). These are

  • the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD),

  • the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which also gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol at the 3rd Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, and

  • the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

“The Future We Want” was the title of the 19 pages of the zero draft outcome document released on 10 January 2012 by the UN. This version by the UNCSD Secretariat (CSD = Commission for Sustainable Development) incorporated contributions from UN member states and other stakeholders submitted to UNDESA in November 2011 and additional inputs at the Rio+20 PrepCom in December 2011. The main themes were: Jobs, Energy, Cities, Food, Water, Oceans and Disasters approached from a perspective of green economy. The second thrust was more institutional about the future configuration of global governance in relation to sustainable development.

This initial effort swelled to over 200 pages during the negotiating session at the UN in March 2012, only to be trimmed back to 80 pages in early June, most of which were, however, contentious between the negotiating parties at the conference itself.

Divergences remained in several key areas right up to the start of the PrepCom preceding the Conference proper, including: climate change, oceans and food and agriculture; the process for the establishment of sustainable development goals (SDGs); means of implementation, finance and technology transfer; the governance of sustainable development; and how to interpret the concept of the green economy. There was also no agreement on whether or not to upgrade the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to an Organization.

It is fair to say that the positions and interests between country negotiators were too far apart to develop enough common ground for major decisions. The Group of 77 put much of its effort into obtaining concessions about transfer of existing environmental technologies, but without agreement on the terms and intellectual property rights (IPR) little concrete progress was made other than reiterating already agreed text from the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO). And so it went with many major discussion points. It was not enough that former Chilean President Michele Bachelet chaired the UN Women Leader's Summit on the 21st of June, attended by many powerful women, including Dilma Roussef of Brazil, to get language into the final version recognising gender differences in the way people are affected by climate change, the economic crisis and fuel shortages. So, on most issues it's about 'recognising' and 'reaffirming' language and 'commitments' already made earlier, but precious little agreement on how to move forward. The representatives of rich countries were not willing to look far enough beyond maintaining current priviledges and working towards more sustainable futures for everybody on the one planet we live on.

So, Rio+20 may well be remembered as the UN Conference primarily agreeing on the launch of different processes, including on governance, the development of sustainable development goals and more. The who, how and when is not even clear at the point of writing.

Meanwhile civil society organisations, business, groups of scientists and many others agitated for a piece of the action. One thing is clear, even if governments were unable to agree on goals and how to share the costs and benefits of the major changes that will be required, nobody contests openly the need to take action. SciDev.Net has followed developments from the perspective of what science could contribute to transitions towards bringing our societies again in tune with the reproductive capacity of the land and ocean resources of the Earth, redrucing rampant overdraft. Mobilising citizens and civil society organisations and reigning in corporate power are part of the future equation.

There is no shortage of opportunities to get involved at all levels - as demonstrated by the youth of the mid-level school in Kayar, Senegal, who went out to clean the beach in the occasion of World Environment Day 2012 (photo Abibiou Diop).