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Special to the tribune
From Rio to Rio, the world hasnít taken a stride
Sunita Narain 

A lot of high-flown rhetoric ushered in last week's UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Rio+20 was the biggest summit the UN had ever organised. Some 40,000 environmentalists and 10,000 government officials gathered with politicians from 190 nations for a meeting which the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said was "too important to fail".

But the reality at Rio was little different. A 50-page document, titled 'the future we want', had been negotiated and graveled upon, all before the arrival of the heads of states. The text was predictable. The document said it all, but nothing consequential.

The gathering, which has attracted more than a hundred world leaders, had promised to tackle poverty and damage to the natural world. But campaigners say few tangible measures have been agreed. And they have denounced the final text.

So does Rio+20 signal the end of global consensus and action on environmental issues?

I remember June of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro vividly. The occasion was the world conference on environment and development. A large number of people had come out on the streets. They were protesting the arrival of George Bush senior, the then president of the US. Just before coming to the conference, Bush had visited a local shopping centre urging people to buy more so that the increased worldwide consumption could rescue his country from the prevailing financial crisis. Protesters were angered by his statement that "the American lifestyle is not negotiable". People wanted change in the way the world did business with the environment. They demanded that George Bush signed the climate convention and agreed to take on tough emission reductions. The mood was expectant, upbeat and pushy.

In June of 2012, the mood in Rio de Janeiro was markedly different. This time, as well, top leaders had come from the grand shopping market of G-20, where they stopped to discuss ways to spend more to get the world economic engines going. In fact many - from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel and David Cameron -- did not even bother to show up. Their countries are in the grips of elections and economic meltdowns and priorities have changed. They clearly have no time for issues like a melting and self-destructing Planet.

So, this time, in Rio the effort was to conclude business and do this as efficiently and painlessly as possible. This time as well civil society groups marched on the streets and gathered to furiously discuss a brave new world. Their venue was the people's summit - located some one hour away from where the officials were gathered. But they found that their voice, however loud, did not reach the negotiators. Instead, this time, civil society was conveniently mainstreamed into the process as representatives of major groups were given space to speak inside the negotiating rooms. This time, there was no need to shout it would seem. So, it would seem.

But the fact is that the final document has left the world cold and hungry. It will do little to solve the world's urgent interlinked crisis of economy and ecology. We know that the world has run out of time and certainly of ideas to dead with its current paradigm of growth, which is based on an unsustainable consumption pattern and lifestyle of a few. Rio+20 does nothing to move the world towards a fairer and greener world.

The only gain in Rio 2012 was that the world stopped itself, just in time, to go backwards. The final document is a victory for the developing world, in particular, India, because it reiterates the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respected capabilities. This guiding principle, hammered out with much acrimony in 1992, establishes the differentiation of action of different parts of the world. It is clearly not negotiable. So, 20 years later, the only gain we can celebrate is that the world did not dismantle the framework of justice and equity in global negotiations. This should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. But the reason is clear: the world has done little to follow up on the promises of Rio 1992. It is now looking for every excuse to get out of its commitment to change.

(The writer is a well-known environmentalist)

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