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As Rio+20 lights fade, action must follow words


The Rio+20 Conference has drawn to a close. There is unanimous agreement on one thing – the outcome is far from what anyone wanted and fails to measure up to the scale and urgency of the challenge. So as the delegates and media begin to depart – after a day at the beach, perhaps, if the weather improves – and some proclaim the (latest) failure of multilateralism, attention shifts to what happens next…

The circus has come to town. Really. In the Barra district of Rio, a big top has been erected and bright lights and colourful posters seek to attract the attention of passers-by. Meanwhile just down the road, at the Rio Centro convention centre, similar tactics have been used to attract attention and interest in the final stages of Rio+20.

The so-called ‘high-level segment’ of Rio+20 (where world leaders take centre stage) has felt like something of a circus. The flags have been brought out to dress the plenary stage, and there is a definite buzz about the conference corridors.

A sense of anticipation and expectation builds. The TV crews fleet around from location to location, for brief pieces to camera before moving on to get footage of various dignatories.

Nick Clegg at Rio+20 plenary, 21 June 2012 © WWFNick Clegg speaking at the Rio+20 conference © WWF

Accompanying the heads of state and government (such as Chinese Premiere Wen Jiabao, South African President Jacob Zuma and French President Francois Hollande) and ‘high-level representatives’ (that would be Nick Clegg) are entourages of advisers, assistants and burly security guards. Motorcades sweep through the traffic, helicopters circle overhead and naval gunboats patrol the coast.

So, these people of power and influence descended on Rio+20 to use their political skills to negotiate the trickiest issues that their negotiators have spent nearly two weeks discussing, and umpteen months before that.

But, this time, there’s nothing for them to negotiate. The text was finalised before most of them arrived. ‘Closed’, apparently as good as locked. It’s like the circus is lacking any kind of breathtaking, enthralling high-wire finale.

But still, they come – although Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided at the last minute not to attend – even if it’s not clear why. One reason they come, of course, is to deliver – in turn, following some law of diplomatic protocol – their set-piece addresses to the conference plenary.

Listening to a selection of these last evening, I was struck by how many of the world’s political leaders spoke with such clarity and conviction about the interconnected environmental, social and economic challenges our world faces, and how sustainable development, green economies, and valuing more than GDP alone could be a route to a more prosperous, safe and resilient future.

So, if so many believe this, how have we ended up with such a miserably weak outcome document that lacks commitments to action, and moves us about as far on the road to that future they so eloquently evoke as a circus clown’s car would get us?

Is it the fault of the negotiators – bureaucrats who are too focused on protecting the ‘national interest’? Well, to be fair, they get their negotiating mandates from their political masters. So the focus really must be on the politicians.

Either way, Rio+20 has not been a great advert for multilateralism – much like the apparently interminable UN process aimed at tackling climate change. It suggests that when governments come to negotiate in the global interest of us all, they end up with the lowest common denominator. A far cry from the original Rio+20 Earth Summit of 1992.

So what next? The political spin from the assembled politicians and negotiators is that “we didn’t get what we wanted, but we got enough to move forwards” (put the doors back on the clown’s car…).

In his plenary address, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke of the need to “turn words into action”, emphasising the need “to work together to change behaviours, to change all our mindsets and put our world on a more sustainable footing.”

Hear, hear, Nick. So let’s see that action back at home through national commitment. After all, if those writing the obituaries for multilateral processes like Rio+20 are right, we will need that action across the world more than ever. Circuses aren’t as popular as they once were. The crowds have gone elsewhere.

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