Field Report: Limited Expectations for Rio+20

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), otherwise known as Rio+20, has just started its second of three official days of meetings at Riocentro, 30 miles or more south of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Hundreds of meetings and side events have been going on for more than a week, including three Green Cross events last Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. We are hosting a fourth event today on the green economy (i.e. whether this means something new or is simply painting a free market economy as green). As further drafts of the final conference document on sustainable development are posted, both government and non-governmental delegations, including ourselves, appear to be limiting their expectations of any serious action agendas resulting from these long discussions on sustainable development. As one observer put it, maybe we should call this "Rio-Minus-20" instead of "Rio-Plus-20." I've been here for five days now, as part of the Green Cross and Global Green delegation from across the globe, and I have been impressed with the massive organization of the whole event. Tens of thousands of individuals have descended on Rio for this meeting, 20 years after the original international conference here in 1992, and the Brazilian effort to keep us all organized and informed has been remarkable. The Riocentro conference center spans an area the size of several football fields, with five or more massive buildings and a food court the size of a baseball stadium. Another venue across the highway, Athlete's Park, is equally large and holds still more events and corporate sponsor pavilions. Many events are also organized in downtown Rio, so transportation is a challenge, especially in light of the daily congestion that appears to burden this sprawling coastal city and region. There is also a separate "People’s Summit," which is organized along the beach area north of Copacabana, close to downtown Rio.

Security is extremely high, with thousands of Brazilian armed troops, police, security and emergency personnel lining the highways and venues and hundreds of buses and VIP cars shuttling delegations to and from hotels, airports, and events. Occasional challenges arise, such as yesterday’s massive demonstration in downtown Rio, which gridlocked the city all afternoon; I was stuck on my shuttle bus for two hours in traffic, trying to return to my hotel, and finally resorted to taking the very good Rio subway system.

Many major issues are being addressed in the meetings here, including women’s rights, indigenous people’s concerns, youth demands, disarmament and security, protection of natural resources, environmental remediation and pollution control, resilient and sustainable cities, green agriculture, recycling, and green building -- the list goes on and on. But, as with many multilateral forums, the final document may sadly result in a least-common-denominator declaration with no binding mandates or target goals for countries to follow.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who is a Green Cross International Honorary Board Member, commented yesterday in a forum on oceans, that "there is lots of blah, blah, blah, but no action, action, action." I personally hope that this is not the result of the Summit.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed non-governmental groups this morning and stated that the final Rio document would be a starting point -- not an end point -- and that civil society would be needed to help pressure their governments to implement the many worthy goals therein. He was strongly criticized by some groups who saw this as a step backwards, not forwards, after two decades of multilateral dialogue on sustainable development. I will comment further on these final results when they are made available in the next day or two.