Rio+20: success or failure?

By Daniel Hale
June 22, 2012

If this were a normal conference, confusion would reign. Negotiators, delirious with lack of sleep, would be thinking about backing down or going home.

Success, with the wind-up very close, would hang in the balance. But here in RioCentro, the location of Rio+20, it’s almost unnaturally calm. If people didn’t feel they ought to be here, I expect most would immediately head to the beach.

The Brazilians were true to their word. None thought they would be able to deliver a document by Tuesday lunchtime, but in the early hours of Tuesday morning (2.18am), the final adjustments were made and the text was declared closed.

At a plenary with Brazilian foreign minister Antonio Patriota (who led these days of negotiations under Brazilian rules), chief negotiators from the USA, EU, China, Venezuela, Bolivia and others remarked how "balanced" the text was. That’s diplomatic speak for "if you dare to change anything, we have a list of other changes everyone else will hate". The spirit of multilateralism was alive, one said, because everyone hated something.

The text itself is 50 pages, and while giving a thorough overview of the varied and urgent challenges the global community faces, does lack any sense of a large-scale framework for action for the next 20 years. 1992 this is not. Instead of one giant leap, there are a hundred tiny steps. But will it work out the same?

It seems to me that this is the new reality. At briefings by the UK delegation (with the Secretary of State and the Deputy Prime Minister, both flying the flag in a weird ‘Team GB’ love-in), they’ve been stressing the concrete steps they’re taking outside the conference text: greenhouse gas reporting for the top 100 companies, money for forests, promoting ‘natural capital accounting’, and support for small-scale farmers so far.

And over in a very fancy hotel, 3000 business leaders were doing much the same thing, getting behind their own sustainable development projects and in so doing, moving a fair few steps ahead of the multilateral process. And even the dreaded banks announced a big scheme to build sustainable transport infrastructure.

So around the world projects are kicking off, governments are doing their thing, NGOs theirs, businesses theirs. But will they all pull in the right direction? The role of governments here is to come together and provide the framework that all this hangs within, but they don’t seem to be quite up to the task. And that’s the failure of the conference.

But it is a success in so many other ways. On our top issues of water and the sustainable development goals, both got significant mentions in the outcome document – maybe they could have gone further, but they were there. And our Progressio partner Derek Kim met and lobbied the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg when he got here this week. We have had a good conference.

So as we go home, will the world be any different? It’s all about how any of these ideas get implemented, about the speed with which incentives to sustainability can be introduced (and disincentives removed), and what use politicians can make of the attention the conference has placed on the urgent need for sustainable development and poverty eradication. It may not be much, but it’s all we have. Now it’s up to each of us to work for the future we want so much.


(c) Daniel Hale leads Progressio’s campaigning, and the Progressio delegation at Rio+20. To get involved with Progressio’s campaigning, visit or email

Ekklesia has been publishing on-the-spot Rio+20 updates from Progressio.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.