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Two weeks after the Rio+20 Summit ended in the beautiful Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, the global media continues to brand the global UN Conference on Sustainable Development a failure.

Like all international conferences, presummit expectations were high. World leaders were expected to add flesh and bone to the global commitment made 20 years ago to save the planet. The outcome definitely fell short of generous expectations. It only managed to add further commitments to past commitments and to reaffirm past commitments.

In 1992, world leaders agreed in a historic Earth Summit in Rio to save the planet. The first of the once-in-a-decade summit agreed that the world needs to move ahead ‘sustainably.’

More than 178 countries then discussed issues like poverty, the gap between rich and poor countries, war, climate change, and agreed for a sustainable roadmap for the world. It resulted in three conventions on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification. The world leaders then signed the Agenda 21, a 40-chapter document containing 800 pages of commitments to pursue a set of goals.

The Rio+20 Summit was expected to concretize the above commitments. It failed to do so.

The Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), an international network of environmental organizations, has claimed that the outcome of the Rio+20 Summit “sold out both people and the planet.”

A leading environmental journalist and activist in India, SunitaNarain, has described the outcome document of the Rio+20 as  “a weak and meaningless document.”  She says the outcome “is a failure of global leadership.” She adds “people have grown up but our leaders are still in kindergarten.”

The Associated Press reported that “It was hard to find a happy soul at the end of the Rio+20 environmental summit.”

The secretary general of the Summit, ShaZukang, described the outcome saying: “This is an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy.”  It has been widely reported that the Summit “was a conference to decide to have more conferences.”

The executive director of the Swiss based South Center, Martin Khor, famously remarked, “We have sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success.” He made a strong point given that the word “reaffirm” has been used 59 times in the outcome document called the “The Future We Want.”

The Rio+20 outcome also failed to come up with any prompt operation mechanism of commitment on the Green Climate Fund. The GCF was founded after the 2009 global Copenhagen Climate Change Summit under the UN’s Climate Change Convention as a mechanism to transfer money from rich to the poor countries to help them combat climate change. It is expected to raise US$ 100bn by 2020. This severely dents the prospects of money flowing to poor countries to fight climate change.

Similarly, there was not much headway in the area of technology transfer from rich to poor countries. The discussion hinges on the debate of intellectual property rights and the rich countries are adamant that it cannot be given freely.

Despite criticisms, the outcome document does lay the foundation for future commitments. It endorses the idea to start the process of developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is slated to replace the acclaimed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

It approves the pursuance of a green economy to achieve global sustainable development though it doesn’t spell out an implementation mechanism. It also endorses the proposal to strengthen the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as a stronger global body to pursue sustainable development.

Of particular interest to Bhutan, the outcome document calls for the need to go beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to assess the wellbeing of a country. Several side events were also held at the Rio+20 Summit on this theme where Bhutan was acclaimed for its development philosophy of Gross National Happiness.

The Youth Volunteers from across the world who gathered at Rio gave Bhutan a prize of encouragement called the Ray of the Day on June 20, the first day of the Summit. It was an acknowledgment of Bhutan being a net carbon sink and its pursuance of the development philosophy of GNH. Though the accreditation is nominal at best, it does signal that Bhutan’s contribution to its philosophy of development is gaining recognition at many fronts.

The Bhutanese Prime Minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, had cautioned us of having bloated expectations from the Summit when he said in his address on the first day of the summit that it “will fall far short of what must be done.”

Reaching home after the summit, the prime minister focused more on how Bhutan fared at the Summit rather than the outcome of the Summit itself. He said that the Summit will benefit Bhutan. Given the attention and applause Bhutan received at the Summit, the prime minister is definitely right.

But overall, the summit has been a failure for the world, particularly the developing world including Bhutan.

The above article was published in Business Bhutan on July 7, 2012