RIO DE JANEIRO – After days of quiet backroom dealing and soaring public rhetoric, global leaders on Friday approved a plan to bring clean water, sanitation and energy to the world’s poor without further degrading the planet.
The agreement, widely criticized for its watered-down ambitions, was overshadowed by a flurry of financial commitments and side deals announced at the three-day U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development.
Government leaders, bankers and corporate CEOs took advantage of the gathering of 50,000 people – the largest meeting in U.N. history – to announce new partnerships, programs and investments.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the $513 billion in commitments “a significant legacy of this conference – billions of dollars’ worth of actions and investments that will have the power to transform lives across the globe.”
To some of those present, the conference presented a new model, a global gathering to inspire government and corporate leaders and others to move ahead and build momentum – rather than waiting for world leaders to reach consensus on a treaty to address climate change or other environmental matters.
“We cannot be boxed in by the orthodoxies of the past,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech to delegates of more than 190 nations. “We need fresh, agile, action-oriented partnerships that can produce results year after year after year.”
Clinton announced an agreement with 400 major food and agriculture companies to halt deforestation, and partnerships with African nations for clean-energy projects.
The world’s largest development banks vowed to invest $175 billion in energy-efficient public transport in poor countries. Mayors vowed to shrink their cities’ carbon footprints. Educators vowed to change economics classes so that students learn about sustainable development.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister and former World Health Organization director, was heartened by all of the proposals for sustainable development, which she defines as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
She gave the 49-page negotiated document, titled “The Future We Want,” a mixed review. It had few major breakthroughs, she said, but didn’t backslide either.
Negotiators came under enormous pressure to avoid an embarrassing failure, as happened in Copenhagen in 2009 over a new climate treaty.
The conference, known as Rio plus20, was broader in scope. It was called 20 years after the 1992 first Earth Summit was held here under vastly different circumstances. The European debt crisis and the sputtering U.S. economic recovery made wealthy countries shy from new financial commitments to help developing nations.
As a result, the plan often lacked specific goals and timetables, which U.N. officials say are needed to provide for a growing population of 7 billion, at a time when fresh water, thriving oceans, arable land and a stable climate are under stress.
The master plan mostly reaffirms past commitments. But it also calls for more protection for the oceans, specifically curbing marine pollution and overfishing.
It proposes that all nations adopt “sustainable development goals,” with the details to be worked out before 2015.