RIO de JANEIRO, Brazil, June 20, 2012 (ENS) – More than 100 heads of state and government today gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the start of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. The summit seeks to shape new policies to promote global prosperity, reduce poverty and advance social equity and environmental protection in the face of warnings that the ecological basis of life is coming undone.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon bangs the gavel to open the high-level portion of the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, June 20, 2012. (Photo by Mark Garten courtesy UN)

“We are now in sight of a historic agreement,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his address to Rio+20’s opening session this morning. “Let us not waste this opportunity. The world is watching to see if words will translate into action, as we know they must.”

After intensive and protracted informal negotiations on how to accelerate the implementation of sustainable development, 191 countries reached agreement Tuesday on the conference’s outcome document. The text will now be put forward for adoption by the world leaders at the conclusion of Rio+20 on Friday.

“I am pleased that negotiations have reached a successful conclusion and I commend the Presidency of Brazil for facilitating this resolution,” Ban said.

More than 50,000 people – parliamentarians, mayors, UN officials, chief executive officers and civil society leaders – are attending Rio+20. The event follows the Earth Summit in 1992, also held in Rio, during which countries adopted Agenda 21, a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection.

As world leaders gathered, UN agencies issued reports urgently warning that the global environment is deteriorating.

“The growing risks and impacts of climate change on oceans require the world to urgently invest in a green economy whereby countries achieve development targets in an environmentally sustainable way while at the same time meeting the needs of their citizens,” said Yannick Glemarec, executive coordinator of UNDP-Global Environment Facility. The body released a report finding that warming ocean waters are causing major shifts in fish distribution and severe degradation of coastal habitats.

Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, speaks at the official opening session of the UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, June 20, 2012 (Photo by Mark Garten courtesy UN)

A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme released today finds that the world “urgently needs to focus on maintaining and boosting the underlying ecological foundations that support food production, which face growing threats from human activity, to help ensure food security for a growing population.”

The report, “Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems,” was produced in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, the World Food Programme and the World Resources Institute. It warns that food security must embrace the environmental services nature provides if the world is to feed its seven billion inhabitants – a population predicted to climb to over nine billion by 2050.

Inefficiencies along the food delivery chain complicate the challenge, and the report warns that an estimated one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to 1.3 billion tons per year.

Secretary-general Ban told the assembled world leaders that since the original Earth Summit 20 years ago progress has been too slow, and much more needs to be done.

“We have been given a second chance. Rio+20 is not an end but a beginning,” Ban said. “It is time for all of us to think globally and locally.”

The heads of state and government will consider Rio+20’s outcome document, entitled “The Future We Want,” which calls for a wide range of actions.

UN negotiators rejoice as they reach agreement on the Rio+20 outcome document, June 19, 2012 (Photo by Maria Elisa Franco courtesy UN)

These include:

  • beginning the process to establish sustainable development goals
  • detailing how the green economy can be used as a tool to achieve sustainable development
  • strengthening the UN Environment Programme
  • promoting corporate sustainability reporting measures
  • taking steps to go beyond gross domestic product to assess the well-being of a country
  • developing a strategy for sustainable development financing
  • adopting a framework for tackling sustainable consumption and production
  • improving gender equity
  • recognizing the importance of voluntary commitments on sustainable development
  • stressing the need to engage civil society and incorporate science into policy

“We think the text contains a lot of action, and if this action is implemented, and if follow-up measures are taken, it will indeed make a tremendous difference in generating positive global change,” said Rio+20’s Secretary-General Sha Zukang after the conclusion of the outcome document negotiations on Tuesday.

“We have reached the best possible equilibrium at this point. I think we have a very good outcome,” said Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota. “We consider that the spirit of Rio has been kept alive after 20 years.”

The draft outcome document was welcomed by delegations, including the Group of 77+China, the European Union, the United States and members of Arab and African groups, among others.

“Collectively, we have trusted the presidency of the conference to identify areas for possible balance and you have found this in a manner that has made the agreement possible to all stakeholders,” a representative of Algeria said on behalf of the Group of 77+China.

In addition to the outcome document, there have been nearly 500 voluntary commitments on sustainable development activities by civil society groups, businesses, governments and universities.

In addition, the UN’s Global Compact initiative, which concluded its Corporate Sustainability Forum yesterday, announced more than 200 commitments to sustainable development by businesses.

Olajobi Makinwa, UN Global Compact, is a former executive director of Amnesty International in South Africa. (Photo courtesy IAE)

Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, told an audience at Business Day in the Rio Conventions Pavilion Monday that that business increasingly sees itself as a driver for sustainable development, providing the capital and innovation needed for change. He urged Rio+20 negotiators not to weaken language requiring businesses to report on their sustainability contributions.

Olajobi Makinwa of the UN Global Compact linked the effects of climate change to biodiversity, which in turn impacts climate change and desertification. Remarking that partnerships between all stakeholders, including science, cities, civil society, government, investors and business, are key, Makinwa emphasized that business participation in the Rio Conventions Pavilion demonstrates the willingness of business to rise to the challenge of realizing sustainable development.

But many civil society groups say the final version of “The Future We Want” does not come close to meeting the needs of the planet for sustainable development.

“The draft outcome document for Rio+20 might as well be an empty coffin in which to bury the promises of Rio from 20 years ago,” said IBON International Director Antonio Tujan Jr. of the Philippines. Tujan is one of three NGO representatives selected to take part in dialogues at Rio+20 between heads of state, NGOs and civil society.

“It does nothing to correct the unsustainable mode of production, consumption and distribution that profits a tiny elite while destroying millions of lives, devastates the environment and endangers humanity’s future,” warned Tujan.

“While developing countries deserve credit for maintaining unity and resisting the prescriptive green economy roadmap aggressively pushed by the developed countries, this corporate-driven agenda remains a growing threat to people and nature,” Tujan said. “It is now incumbent upon the heads of state who will gather in Rio in the next three days to own up to their responsibility to the people.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Kari Oka 2 Declaration (Photo by Ben Powless courtesy Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities)

The Indigenous peoples of the world, assembled at the sacred site Kari-Oka Puku in Rio to participate in Rio+20, issued a statement Tuesday saying, “We see the goals of UNCSD Rio+20, the “Green Economy” and its premise that the world can only “save” nature by commodifying its life giving and life sustaining capacities as a continuation of the colonialism that Indigenous Peoples and our Mother Earth have faced and resisted for 520 years.”

“The “Green Economy” promises to eradicate poverty but in fact will only favor and respond to multinational enterprises and capitalism. It is a continuation of a global economy based upon fossil fuels, the destruction of the environment by exploiting nature through extractive industries such as mining, oil exploration and production, intensive mono-culture agriculture, and other capitalist investments. All of these efforts are directed toward profit and the accumulation of capital by the few,” the Indigenous declaration states.

Friends of the Earth International Tuesday warned world leaders that multinational corporations such as oil giant Shell “have an undue influence” over the Rio+20 Earth Summit. Senior company representatives are active in corporate lobbying groups at Rio+20 including: the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association, the UN Global Compact, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the International Emissions Trading Association.

WWF Director General Jim Leape at Rio+20, June 19, 2012 (Photo courtesy ENB)

“It is not acceptable that companies like Shell who cause massive pollution and human rights abuses should be in the driving seat of processes for sustainable development,” said Nnimmo Bassey, who chairs Friends of the Earth International. “That is a recipe for disaster for our planet and peoples. Corporate polluters should not help making laws, they should face the law.”

WWF Director General Jim Leape said Tuesday, “Despite a late night negotiating session, the revised text is a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats. They should be embarrassed at their inability to find common ground on such a crucial issue.”

“Now it’s up to world leaders to get serious about sustainable development and save this process,” said Leape. “If they approve what’s on the table now without significant changes, they’ve doomed Rio+20 to ridicule.”

“While some weak words have been removed, diplomats have swapped them with toothless language,” said Leape. “They’ve added some positive actions around oceans protection. But, the text has lots of words that ‘commit’ parties to nothing – such as ‘commit to promote’ and ‘commit to systematically consider.'”

“World leaders ‘recognized’ problems 20 years ago, and they’ve done little about them since,” said the WWF leader. “How long are we going to accept ‘we’ll look into it’ as a solution?”

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