Was Rio Conference Worth It?

The adopted “Rio+20″ agreement, adopted by numerous countries on June 22 has been panned mercilessly by many environmental and human rights groups as doing too little too late. They have substituted their own nickname for the document: “The Future We Don’t Want.” (proposals for the document had been entitled: “The Future We Want.”)

What is missing? Binding commitments on specific sustainable policies, specific forward progress on climate change, and specific money transfers to the developing world. What I found most interesting about these protests were not that they were wrong but that they seemed to have too narrow a vision, focusing on the “sustainable” and not enough on the “development.” One could argue that the international community needs little help in “developing” especially if that means solely industrialization. But this conference was never supposed to just be about the environment, but also about how we have sustainable environmental policies (renewable and non-destructive), while fostering economic development. While the perspective of the developed countries has historically not been as much about equity (and still isn’t in some cases, many U.S. polciticians and climate change for example), the focus on the “development” part of the goal was a big step forward internationally, and should not be dismissed.

The countries did agree to move towards more sustainable energy policies and posible elimination of subsidies, and the developed world did authorize large sums of money to assist the poorest countries in moving forward. More importantly, outside of the official event, there were hundreds of side events and conversation on access to water, to energy, and agriculture. Much of these were practical, such as removing legal barriers to the deployment of low impact energy, at which I spoke, and focuses on technology that was cheap and facilitate access to human needs.

I believe that we will continue to see much progress occuring outside of official channels, but the official channels are also still important. They take the best ideas of the private sector and can eventually bring them to wider distribution and to form international norms.

There are so many people around the world who don’t have access to the basics of life, to jobs, to energy, and to a clean environment. Will that lot improve now? On balance, while there could have bee nmuh more, I think the world will improve because of what occurred at Rio.