RIO +20:

Are U.N. environmental mega-conferences a dying breed?

RIO DE JANEIRO -- More than 45,000 people flew around the world to participate in Brazil's second Earth Summit last week, and many left here wondering whether it was worth the trip.

Yet despite a final Rio Declaration widely derided as a failure, dozens of attendees said they would do it all over again, mostly because they don't see a worthwhile alternative.

Interviews with activists, business leaders, negotiators and others pointed to one clear theme: disappointment, edged by an unwillingness to nakedly say "never again" out of respect for the many side meetings, contacts and voluntary agreements Rio ultimately produced.

Throughout the weeklong summit, some on the hard left of the environmental movement called for the abolishment of the United Nations as well as the end of mega-conferences on the state of the planet. Much like the Occupy Wall Street movement, they argued that U.N. leadership has become a tool of polluting corporations and a reflection of the wealthiest 1 percent in global society.

But even those sympathetic with that view said they wouldn't clear-cut mega-conferences altogether.

Neil Tangri, research director for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, said the emergent public-private dynamic -- in which businesses play a bigger role in partnering with government -- illustrates precisely why U.N. mega-conferences are still important.

"For governments, the conference is simply a [public relations] exercise," he said, "but for civil society, it is an opportunity to hold governments accountable. If we get rid of the conference, we would lose the opportunity to focus public attention on the problems, but nothing otherwise would change."

'You shine your shoes to get inspected'

Still, Tangri's view appeared to define the minority during the actual conference. Others put a more optimistic spin on that same reality -- one that appeared to closely reflect the thinking promoted most strongly by the U.S. delegation: that finding a solution to the climate crisis "takes a village."

"Governments alone cannot solve all the problems we face," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told attendees.

The line of thinking stands in stark contrast to the mood 20 years ago at the first Rio-based Earth Summit when governments were presumed to hold the key to saving the planet.

Then, activist and national leaders tried to find common ground on a single policy thrust in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This time around, the goals were far messier, and the conference reflected that, with hundreds of overlapping issues in play.

The pacts signed last week by governments, corporations, schools and interest groups ranged from Aruba pledging to eliminate use of all fossil fuels to a new U.S.-Africa clean energy program to authorities in Brazil deciding that sustainability will be taught from here forward at all levels of education in the country (E&ENews PM, June 22).

"It was unfocused and disorganized and needed a much tighter theme," one senior-level German delegate said. "My inclination is to say, 'No, we shouldn't ever do this again,' but I also know there is really no other way to do what we did."

The official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press, called the Rio Declaration a failure. Still, he said, once-a-decade conferences like these remain valuable for bringing people with diverse interests to the same venue to assess the state of the planet and redirect energies.

"These conferences are a time for taking stock, and if you didn't have them, I don't know when that would happen," agreed William Reilly, former U.S. EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush and now chairman of the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Reilly noted that in the run-up to such summits, agencies all over the world run data and statistics on everything from ocean health to greenhouse gas emissions, giving governments a chance to see if they are making progress or backsliding. Meanwhile, he argued, many of the groundbreaking commitments put forward by companies and some governments would never have happened without Rio spurring them on.

"You shine your shoes to get inspected," Reilly said. When government leaders in particular face the spotlight, "They've got to have something to say."

When the text isn't everything

Nate Hultman, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, also saw value in Rio.

"I do not think that even a tepid outcome from the Rio meeting will either stop them from happening, or fundamentally undermine the logic for holding them," Hultman said.

"The benefits ... accrue primarily in the degree to which they set new norms and expectations, serve as a venue for communication and capacity building, and, one hopes, serve as the motivator and focal point for real actions."

Raquel Solomon, a graduate student at Columbia University, said the change in Rio from prior meetings is that the former "top-down" negotiation strategy has given way to a "bottom-up" process in which the most important movement comes from the thousands attending and what they do afterward.

She cited a question during a plenary session in which a Girl Scout stood and confidently asked the panel about "ecological tradeoffs."

That moment, she said, was more important than the watered-down text signed by 187 nations.

"The right conversations are happening," Solomon said. "This is mostly about education and how education is the way to go. This isn't about negotiations."

But where's the progress?

But Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and longtime observer of environmental conferences, said U.N. leaders need to a better job of setting expectations "realistically and specifically."

Bledsoe said the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, climate summit, for instance, was widely seen as a failure, but he is among those who saw the gathering as the first place where every major emitting nation pledged to scale back emissions. Yet Copenhagen was portrayed as a flop in large part because it was pumped up by activists and the media as the place where governments would agree to a new, binding global warming treaty. He said U.N. officials might avoid that in the future by focusing expectations.

"If such mega-meetings fail to produce measurable near-term results, they can be derided as pointless 'talk-fests'," he said. "Demonstrating progress is how you gain allies and develop political momentum, not by setting unachievable expectations."

David Turnbull, campaigns director of Oil Change International, who has attended a number of U.N. climate conferences, said he has learned something from environmental mega-summits: that they are a tough slog.

But he still sees the point of flying, if need be, all the way from one side of the planet to the other.

"I was pretty skeptical coming into Rio+20 because it didn't seem like governments were taking it seriously. What we're seeing is, that's the case," he said. "But I do think there need to be moments where a spotlight as big as this is shone, moments where you do get all the public attention and people all in one place talking about the same thing."

Critics say Rio should have been 'greener'

Amelia Clarke, director of the master of environment and business program at the University of Waterloo, found value in another sense. She said the discourse of Rio+20 will extend well beyond the conference itself, citing the five different conferences she was invited to in Canada on the green economy.

"It is easy to focus on just the negotiations, and all the time and money that countries put into this effort ... these negotiations are definitely not as valuable as they might be," Clarke said.

"However, I think face-to-face interactions are necessary for a broader group of stakeholders to help with implementation. Sustainable development requires action by local governments, businesses, NGOs, universities, as well as the federal governments and U.N. system."

Nevertheless, Clarke said she saw no evidence that Brazilian authorities had made much of an effort to "green" the event here either with carbon offsets or other sustainability efforts. "The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg put considerable emphasis on greening that U.N. conference," she said. "This time I have not seen much on this."

Simone Lovera, of the Global Forest Coalition, echoed that point.

"Did we need to bring 50,000 people here to save the planet?" she asked. "No," she said, before adding that activists achieved "a couple of small victories here" such as raising awareness on deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest.

"It's more encouragement to shout even harder," she said.

In a changing world, difficult diplomacy

Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy, said the weak text negotiators delivered at Rio+20 stands in stark contrast to the strong commitments that governments and business leaders made last week.

But, he said, there is a political reality at play. Those pledges -- like the 57 countries and 86 companies who vowed to factor for the use and degradation of air, water and trees into their financial accounting -- would not have happened without the platform and attention that the U.N. conference delivered.

"This creates a political moment. It creates a media opportunity," he said. "It also helps drive bureaucratic change at home. If your president is going to go to an international conference to make a big speech, he or she needs a deliverable."

Deutz also argued that the disappointing Rio+20 document needs to be understood in a changing global political context. While the environmental community is struggling to get goals met in international forums, he said, the Doha trade rounds also have not reached agreement since 2002 and even the most recent G-20 summit failed to deliver a consensus on Europe's economic ills or the crisis in Syria.

"We need to change our expectations of how we write the rules of the world. We've been in a world that's focused on being consensus-driven with a lowest-common-denominator equation, and it was based on a world in which there are rich countries and poor countries. That was 20 years ago. It's a much more complicated world today," he said.

Still, he said, mega-conferences like Rio will continue to have their place in the world. "I expect we'll still be doing big environmental conferences in the future because it's still important to put things on the agenda and to make governments and businesses put things on the agenda."

Was Rio a success? Ask again in 10 years

One Brazilian minister who also asked not to be identified said the host country faced a worldwide economic crisis and lower expectations than recent U.N. summits. He insisted Rio+20 "achieved what was possible" while much of the world trudges through recession.

"Some things are better done than not done," he said. "I see merits in this direction."

The minister agreed that NGOs tend to set the bar too high and therefore create the sense in advance that nothing but a massive breakthrough will mean success. Moreover, he said, the most essential takeaway was the reality that for all the big ideas that were presented, the hard truth is there is less money available in the pipeline -- especially from governments -- as economies struggle with austerity measures and debt problems.

"It's a case of big ideas, no money," he said. Activists, he said, are "very well intended, but they tend to take the stance of everything is so easy to solve, and governments don't solve them because they don't want to. The truth is far more complex than that."

Karla Darra Correa, of the Brazilian Network in the U.N. Global Compact, agreed that NGOs tend to inflate the desired outcome as a way to put pressure on diplomats, a tendency that can backfire. To Correa, the only way to know if this mega-conference was a success is to look back at it in a decade.

"I can't tell you if it's successful, because we are in the middle of it," she said. "From our perspective, what we are seeing is a lot of optimism."

Matthew Gianni, of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, agreed that only time will tell.

"Rio+20 has shown less backbone than your average [jellyfish], but if we use this to take the action clearly indicated, then progress will have been made," Gianni said.

Reporter Lisa Friedman contributed.