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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

RIO+20: The Earth Conference Revisited

Air Date: Week of
Nearly 1500 people used Rio’s Flamengo Beach as a canvas on June 19, 2012. Their bodies formed the lines of an enormous image promoting the importance of free-running rivers, truly clean energy sources like solar power and including indigenous knowledge as part of the solution to climate issues. The activity was led by Brazil’s many indigenous peoples organized under the umbrella of the Articulation of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples. (Photo: ©Spectral Q/Chico/Paulo)

In 1992 officials from countries around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Earth Summit to tackle the biggest environmental issues of the day. Twenty years on, the challenges still remain. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports from Rio that much of the action took place on the sidelines.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. It was 20 years ago this month that world leaders gathered at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a landmark meeting that put sustainable development and environmental protection on the globe’s agenda.

Two international agreements resulted, one protecting the planet’s biodiversity, and a process to deal with climate change. One hundred-seventy-two governments participated in that Rio Summit and 108 heads of state attended, including then U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

GELLERMAN: Our story from the Rio summit was made possible with support from Internews and Earth Journalism Network.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the plenary
session of UN Rio+20 Conference. (Photo: UN /Maria Elisa Franco)

BUSH: America's record on environmental protection is second to none. So I did not come here to apologize. We come to press on with deliberate purpose and forceful action. And such action will demonstrate our continuing commitment to leadership and to international cooperation on the environment.

GELLERMAN: The U.S. would later sign the Kyoto Protocol establishing binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions but the treaty was never ratified by the Senate. Well, now two decades on from that first UN summit, nations have yet to come up with a new climate change treaty, and world leaders have once again convened in Brazil at Rio +20.

Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb interviews a delegate from
Bhutan. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

And while the music was upbeat in the country that gave us the samba, the outcome of the sustainable development summit was more subdued. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports from Rio:


BASCOMB: White sand beaches of the Atlantic Ocean border Rio on the east. To the west is a ring of green cone-shaped mountains. Locals aren't humble about the beauty here; Rio's nickname is Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City.

Some 50,000 people are here for this Rio +20 Earth Summit. It’s not one of the world climate talks. Instead the goal was to make specific commitments on critical issues like sustainable fisheries and access to safe drinking water. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff struck an upbeat tone as she greeted 120 heads of state.

ROUSSEFF (translated from Portuguese): The number of world leaders attending this session in Rio de Janeiro is a clear token of an unmistakable commitment to the very pressing issues of sustainable development. I have no doubt that we will live up to the challenges presented to us on a global scale.

Protestor demands at Rio +20 (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: But noticeably absent from the negotiations are President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On the other hand, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Monmohan Singh of India and Francois Hollande of France are here.


BASCOMB: The agreement coming out of this summit contains only vague language, like "recognize and “reaffirm," rather than “will” or “can.” There are no binding targets or goals.

LEEP: The text negotiated here falls far short of what it needed to be.

The Equator Prize winner from Colombia with one of her recycled bags. (Photo:
Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Jim Leep is Director General of World Wildlife Fund International. He says the document will allow delegates to claim success though it does little to move the world towards sustainable development.

LEEP: What you see is a lowest common denominator product that took on board every objection and did not find a way to galvanize the international action we need to see to accelerate progress towards sustainable development.

BASCOMB: Much of the world is too distracted by the Euro crisis to make a strong showing here, says Manish Bapna. He’s acting president of the World Resources Institute. And he adds another reason for the inability to strike large meaningful accords.

BAPNA: There are vested interests that stand to gain from the status quo. And the type of process that we have in place that requires unanimity -- that everyone agrees -- makes it incredibly difficult to make sufficient progress when the process is not necessarily designed to move forward ambitiously.

[SOUND OF MEETING…“On behalf of nine major groups under Agenda Item 8…”]

BASCOMB: While the main document negotiated may not be truly significant, this Rio meeting does give rare recognition and perhaps a boost of confidence for hundreds of local activists who organize in their home countries without access to reliable internet, electricity or clean water.


BASCOMB: Two members of the Ashaninka Tribe from the Amazon open a UN awards ceremony for environmental leaders from 25 tropical countries. They’ve managed to bring sustainable economic development to their communities.


BASCOMB: A fashion show of Bangladeshi sarongs, Fijian flowered shirts and Moroccan headscarves takes the stage. Celebrities including Richard Branson and Edward Norton presented the prize. Charles McNeil is senior policy advisor for environment and energy at the United Nations Development Program.

MCNEIL: We realized there was an unusual overlap of the richest biodiversity in the world; all the plants and animals in the equator belt and yet that's also where the greatest poverty was located. And we were beginning to see that some communities were able to transform that biological richness into economic development.

BASCOMB: One winner, a Bedouin man from Egypt, organized a cooperative in which members grow medicinal plants they can sell. In Colombia a women's group got fed up with the sight of plastic bags on their street and saw a way to make money.

Richard Branson hosted the Equator Prize awards ceremony. (Photo: Bobby

ARROYO (translated from Spanish): And we take these plastic bags that have been collected in our community recycling campaigns and cut them into strips, and our artisans will then crochet them into these amazing tote bags that we call eco-mochillas.

BASCOMB: Before this project, many people in her region sold tamarin monkeys into the illegal pet trade as their source of income.


BASCOMB: Across town from the official Rio + 20 Earth Summit is the People's Summit.


The beaches of Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Here, amid troubadours and fair trade booths, posters condemn high emitting countries for their global carbon emissions. Those have doubled since the first Earth Summit here 20 years ago, tipping the planet towards climate disruption. But there were a few concrete commitments made to sustainability. Development banks say they’ll launch a 175 billion dollar fund for sustainable transportation. And Norway pledged 140 million dollars to replace kerosene lamps with solar energy in rural Africa. For Living On Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb at the Rio +20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.




United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

World Resources Institute

Equator Award

United Nations Development Program

Earth Journalism Network


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