Why Rio+20 went flat, by architect of Rio 92

“Lowest common denominator” Rio+20 outcomes highlight need for more science and sustainability.

Six months ago, a senior Brazilian statesman  added his voice to the chorus of disappointment at the modest outcomes of the UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, describing the declaration produced by world leaders in Rio this week as “diffuse, unfocused, and based on the lowest common denominator.”

Celso Lafer, who as Brazil’s foreign minister in 1992 was one of the prime architects of Rio’s original 1992 Earth Summit, said the host government of that time gave total priority to planning a conference that eventually resulted in three binding international agreements, that went on to shape global environmental policymaking.

By contrast he said that 20 years later, the host government of President Dilma Rousseff had only tardily dedicated any diplomatic energy to the 2012 summit. The consensus document negotiated by Brazil “falls short of both the expectations and needs of humanity,” said Lafer.

He also blamed the negative international economic outlook, which contributed to key world leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron preferring to attend the G20 meeting in Mexico, and to the lack of focus on creating any new binding sustainability targets. Lafer said this was “the price that had to be paid for reaching any consensus during the conference.”

Whatever the shortcomings of the official event, Lafer praised the widespread participation by NGO groups, scientists and society in the fringe events surrounding Rio+20. Lafer, who is president of the São Paulo Research Foundation FAPESP and whose scientists participated actively in the debates, said the thread that linked Rio ’92 and Rio+20 was popular commitment to sustainability.

But however hard it was proving to reach global agreement on sustainable development, it was vital that science lay at the heart of any future international treaties, he said. FAPESP, which is Brazil’s leading regional technology funding agency, has ties with the world’s leading institutions studying the science of sustainability and sponsors research in climate change, biodiversity and alternative energy.


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