RIO+20:

Side agreements pitched as the real meat behind Earth Summit

RIO DE JANEIRO -- This year's reprise of the international Earth Summit here produced hundreds of side agreements that U.N. officials, diplomats and activists cited as evidence that the conference wasn't the washout many claim.

Aside from adopting the 44-page "Rio Declaration" that many called a failed document, the meetings saw 45,381 passes issued to attendees from 187 U.N. member nations. That includes passes to more than 10,000 delegates, about 100 heads of state, 4,000 media members and 9,816 nongovernmental organizations.

Footing the bill for the conference itself was the government of Brazil, which paid for thousands of shuttle buses, staff and the facility itself, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of the city that featured a pricey food court, meeting halls for delegates, live music and a local waterway cutting through the building.

The attendees spent much of their time attending side meetings and plenary sessions meant to drum up conversation on sustainable development, a global green economy and how the planet's governments might get on the same page to enact policies that would encourage attention to both concepts.

The side agreements were being hailed by environmentalists and other observers who had few good words for the declaration itself, which stopped short of defining either the green economy or sustainable development goals meant to encourage its growth. Sha Zukang, the Chinese diplomat who was the U.N. secretary-general of the summit, estimated that 692 side commitments emerged from Rio with a value of $513 billion.

"This is a major achievement," he said at his final press briefing of the summit. Sha then cautioned that voluntary commitments are unenforceable, so he called on the parties to these pacts to follow up with accountability reports to the United Nations on "deliverables" after they are implemented.

A few of the highlights among the hundreds of agreements:

  • Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies such as Wal-Mart and Woolworths pledged to measure wealth in terms of natural resources under a "Natural Capital Declaration" that was primarily the work of a U.K.-based nonprofit called the Global Canopy Programme and the U.N. Environment Programme. A green accounting system was attached to the natural capital creed by the World Bank and signed by 86 private companies, including China Merchants Bank, Puma and Dow Chemical, which all agreed to count clean air, water, forests and ecosystems alongside traditional measures like gross domestic product.
  • The U.K. prime minister issued a directive that demands all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange go public with greenhouse gas emissions inventories.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a $2 billion commitment to a three-agency program to extend aid to Africa for development of clean energy. Clinton appeared here to promote the effort, which she said will address lack of access to electricity on the continent.
  • The Maldives announced creation of what would be the world's largest marine reserve. Officials from the Maldives, which is on the front lines of adapting to climate change and sea-level rise, said all 1,192 of its islands will become a marine reserve by 2017.
  • Brazil and Mozambique launched what they called a road map to a green economy. Brazil committed to helping the African nation develop cities, agriculture and energy sources that are meant to be a case study in building a terrestrial green economy from scratch.
  • Eight of the world's biggest development banks announced plans to invest in public transport under a U.S.-led $175 billion initiative to promote buses, trains and bicycle lanes. An environmental group called it a "game changer" for public transit, but the investment is not new money. It is part of a new agenda among the multilateral development banks to prioritize urban transportation and rail over road and highway construction.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development announced plans for a conference within 100 days of Rio on the Consumer Goods Forum's pledge to have a net-zero deforestation footprint by 2020. The group includes corporate heavyweights like Coca-Cola, General Mills, Barilla, Kraft Foods, Colgate, Tesco, Heineken and Johnson & Johnson.
  • The government of Aruba said it would take itself entirely off fossil fuels by 2020 and spend $1 billion on energy efficiency over the next 15 years.
  • The Brazilan state of Pará, in the Amazon, committed to achieve a net-zero deforestation increase of tree cover by 2020.
  • French President Francois Hollande told reporters he would enact a tax on financial institutions in France to fund sustainable development in poor countries. Hollande hopes this program will soon be taken up by the United Nations and replicated in other countries.
  • More than 300 universities promised to deepen teaching of sustainability in their curricula. Adding to that was a promise that all schools in Brazil, from elementary level to higher education, will be required to teach sustainability, said Antonio Freitas, of the education group Fundação Getulio Vargas.
  • Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP's global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
  • The World Wildlife Fund said it moved closer to a global agreement to protect rivers, aquifers and lakes shared between nations. As of the end of Rio+20, the group had signed 26 nations to the pledge and said 12 more nations are actively engaged in the ratification process.

U.N. officials said they plan to post the entire registry of side commitments on the Internet as soon as possible.

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