Global leaders ended a UN development summit in Rio de Janeiro on Friday with what was widely considered a lackluster agreement.
Nearly 100 world leaders gathered over the past three days in efforts to establish “sustainable development goals,” a UN drive built around economic growth, the environment and social inclusion. However, a lack of consensus over those goals led to an agreement that even some signatory nations said lacked commitment, specifics and measurable targets.
As a result, many ecologists, activists, and business leaders now believe that progress on environmental issues must be made locally with the private sector, and without the help of international accords.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton admitted as much: “Governments alone cannot solve all the problems we face, from climate change to persistent poverty to chronic energy shortages.”
Most troubling for many critics of the summit is the fact that leaders arrived in Rio merely to sign a text that their diplomats had all but sealed beforehand. The text, dubbed “The Future We Want,” left little room for vision or audacity, critics argued.
“The world we want will not be delivered by leaders who lack courage to come here, sit at the table and negotiate themselves,” said Sharon Burrow, general-secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.
Some heads of state and government stayed away, given the global economic slowdown, worsening debt woes in Europe and continued violence in the Middle East. Notable absentees included US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, all of whom did attend a G20 summit earlier this week in Mexico.
Some delegates left on Thursday and by late on Friday a handful of leaders were still delivering ceremonial addresses in a large, empty hall. Organizers say the purpose of the summit was to initiate a process to define a new set of development principles, not the forging of legally binding treaties.
“The storyline is different from 1992,” said Andre Correa do Lago, chief negotiator at the conference for Brazil, which led the final talks on the declaration. “This summit recognizes more than the others that not one size fits all.”
Many leaders used their time at the podium to note the markedly different needs they were struggling with, especially compared with the developed world. While Brazil, China and other big emerging nations spoke of their need to catch up with rich countries, others like Bolivia, Iran and Cuba unleashed traditional rants against capitalism and conventional definitions of growth.
One point of contention is what many emerging nations say is a need for a global fund that could help them pursue development goals.
Early talk of a US$30 billion fund for that purpose as a possible outcome of the summit foundered well before leaders arrived. A French proposal to tax financial transactions for that purpose also failed.
On a positive note, Clinton announced a US$20 million grant for clean energy projects in Africa and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday that private investors since last year had pledged over US$50 billion to boost the use of renewable energy sources worldwide.
Many business leaders at the conference said they were eager to find ways to contribute further. Richard Branson, the British billionaire, said: “There’s very little in a document like what they’ve come up with to accomplish real goals. That leaves it to the rest of us to find ways to move forward.”