As the crowds at the Rio+20 Earth Summit dwindled and attendees left the conference hall late in the day Friday, a small group of people sat around a lunch table in the cafeteria engaged in spirited conversation.
They weren’t talking about the failed negotiations. They weren’t complaining about diplomats, the UN process, or the lack of a strong agreement at the summit. Rather, they were debating the barriers faced by entrepreneurs delivering solar to under-served populations in India.
The group consisted of Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club; Jigar Shah, former CEO of the Carbon War Room; Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Eight19, a company developing an off-grid solar lighting and battery system; and Mayank Sekhsaria, co-founder of Greenlight Planet, a firm helping entrepreneurs deploy off-grid solar technologies in India.
“What people don’t understand is that this isn’t about demand for solar, it’s about supply. If you could theoretically service these markets all at once, you’d solve the problem immediately,” said Sekhsaria, describing the different deployment bottlenecks within the off-grid Indian market.
Over the next hour, as world leaders projected on the large television screen at the front of the cafeteria spoke about the need to address the world’s environmental problems, these experts debated the real, on-the-ground problems for the solar industry in the developing world.
For many, the Rio+20 Earth Summit will go down as one of the greatest diplomatic failures of our time — a squandered opportunity for the international community to take real action on our looming environmental problems. But for some attendees, the negotiations are only a small piece of what’s really going on.
“I’m not here following the different funding commitments or the text, I’m here to meet people and talk about solar and connect with new people all over the world,” said Sekhsaria.
This is the other side of Rio+20. The summit is usually billed as place where negotiators come to hammer out broad agreements in stuffy rooms. And that’s what a lot of attendees are focused on. But with more than 45,000 people attending hundreds of side events on every sustainability subject imaginable, it’s also a place where people come to learn from one another.
“Unfortunately, what people focus on are the negotiations,” said Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But that part of the meeting is a remnant of the 20th century. What we see now are mayors, governors, activists and civil society groups all participating and creating new coalitions. To me that’s the value.”
Scherr, like every other representative of the environmental community, is deeply disappointed in the outcome of the official negotiations.
“If that’s the vision we share, we’re in pretty big trouble,” he said.
After watching the talks fall to the lowest common denominator, Scherr now believes that the Rio+20 summit marked an end to the central role of multilateral negotiations on sustainability. But while despairing the poor work of diplomats, he talked excitedly about the work of activists, business leaders, and other members of civil society demanding and taking action:
“We’ve conditioned people to think about instant results. And that’s what we see here, that people thought we would get some big treaty or an action plan for the world. In fact, the real action is the sustainability movement itself, shown through people on the ground here.”
“Instant results” is a relative term. The negotiating countries had 20 years to come up with a new declaration, after all. But Scherr’s sentiment was shared by most people on the ground at the summit.
Interestingly, the environmental community made a significant rhetorical shift during the week as the negotiations flopped. In the lead up to the event, people were calling on leaders to make big, bold decisions. However, when the talks resulted in watered down, non-committal language, almost everyone said that’s what they expected.
“I don’t think anyone thought this was going to be a transformational meeting,” said Nathan Hultman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program.
When asked why he thought environmental groups sold Rio+20 to the broader public as a transformational meeting while at the same time admitting they were never expecting a lot, Hultman said bluntly: “I’m not trying to be cynical, but that’s their role.”
“A lot of these groups are advocacy organizations and their role is to try to increase pressure – to take a more visionary approach and raise expectations about what should be done. That’s just the ‘ask’ as part of governance,” said Hultman.
But this is a different type of governance. The UN process is not a parliament, and therefore there’s no real way to impose international will. So while Hultman agreed that the official document coming out of the meeting was “tepid” at best, he also said that the meeting was good for elevating the cause of sustainability and poverty reduction on the international stage – to “establish expectations, create norms, and change outlook”:
“These large meetings where people come together an establish those principles are actually good for that. The real question revolves around what the outcome of the meeting will be. And it’s just more than a single document.”
If judging the meeting by the range of public/private financial commitments, the surging wave of activism, and a rhetorical shift by leaders who integrate sustainability into other international issues, then the meeting may have accomplished something.
Andrew Light, an international climate expert with the Center for American Progress, agrees with that assessment. But he doesn’t believe that the summit marks an end to the multilateral negotiating process — calling that conclusion “overwrought at best.”
To Light, the problem with Rio+20 was much more individual and not necessarily reflective of the entire process. He believes the Rio process was “mismanaged from the start” because of the lack of a coherent agenda that was not reigned in by the UN or the Brazilian hosts.
“Only when it was too late to do anything else did the meeting turn into a G20 on steroids. Most of the final text reads almost exactly like a G20 communique, taking only the points agreed on by everyone and turning them into acknowledgements rather than action plans.”
However, there is evidence in the text that the parties will attempt a “do over” with the creation of a “high-level political forum” to start a process to create a new set of sustainability goals. To people rightly concerned that leaders have yet again punted – setting up another process to start another process – this may not bring much comfort.
But Light, who is ever the diplomatic pragmatist, doesn’t believe all is lost in the UN negotiating process. While upset with the lack of a coherent outcome, he also believes that this new political forum is a way to link the efforts of what countries, companies, and other civil society groups are doing on the ground around the world.
The new 30-member UN forum established at Rio would encourage system-wide participation by all UN agencies, enhance the consultative role of relevant stakeholders in selecting new goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals, and strengthen the science-policy link for setting these goals.
The forum will eventually replace the existing UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which was the official convener of the Rio summit. Replacing that commission with this new forum acknowledges that a stronger body is needed to do the work of harmonizing global efforts and sustainability.
“We need an overarching process to coordinate these efforts. The birth of this new Sustainability Forum was awkward and badly handled. Now we need to push it to do more, faster, and more effectively, than the planning that went into this meeting,” said Light.
There’s a lot of blame going around in the wake of Rio+20. Some are blaming the Brazilians for pushing a poor text just so they could say they got an agreement; some blame the UN for failing to have a coherent plan coming into the meeting; and others believe the negotiators are ultimately responsible for the outcome.
“We need to move beyond a process where securing any agreement is considered a success,” said Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the World Resources Institute. “To some extent the negotiators seem content with what we have, irrespective of what it actually means.”
Bapna called the Rio summit a “failed opportunity” to rally world leaders around an actionable plan for sustainability. But he also doesn’t believe that failure indicates the need to move beyond a multilateral process.
“The multilateral process is important for many reasons. It is one of the few legitimate areas where the more vulnerable and less powerful have a strong voice. We need to find a way to redefine a process that works – and I do believe it does need to be multilateral,” said Bapna.
On the last day of the Rio summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the stage. With no actionable plan to tout, Clinton focused instead on “targeted financing” and stressed the need for innovative public/private partnerships to help deploy clean energy, green buildings, and water projects.
“The most compelling products of this conference are the examples of new thinking that can lead to models for future action. It should be said of Rio that people left here thinking, as the late Steve Jobs put it, not just big, but different,” said Clinton.
Viewed from a cynical perspective, Clinton was simply trying to make up for the poor outcome of the meeting by announcing a bit of financing for clean energy in developing countries. But her speech accurately reflected how many people at the event were feeling. The Rio+20 summit created an opportunity for the global community to think differently about expectations, about whether or not these type of negotiations work, and about what it means to define success.
Whether or not the UN actually succeeds in setting up a more effective process after Rio+20, WRI’s Bapna framed the outcome outside the context of the negotiations — focusing not on the work of diplomats, but on the work of entrepreneurs and activists around the world actually spurring action.
“We cannot conflate what the Rio+20 negotiations represent with what is actually happening on the ground,” he said. “There’s a lot happening outside this conference that we need to build from. That’s where the real promise lies.”