SPECIAL REPORT / Disappointed over the failure of the Rio summit to produce ambitious commitments on sustainable growth, conservationists say Europe must now redouble efforts to tackle its own environmental challenges.

Replete with declarations on sustainability, poverty reduction and expanding electricity to disadvantaged people, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development’s final document contained none of the firm commitments on resource conservation and economic sustainability that EU officials and environmental groups had urged.

“When governments come here with absolutely no ambition, it will mean that their documents have no ambition,” Asad Rehman, head of global climate and energy campaigns at Friends of the Earth in Britain, said from Rio de Janeiro.

The conference also failed to lay out a plan backed by the European Union to give the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) more firepower – putting it on par with the world body’s trade, health and labour organisations.

EU must ‘do more’

Saying he was dispirited by the lacklustre outcome of the 20-22 June meeting, German MEP Jo Leinen (Socialists and Democrats) said the EU shouldn’t back down on its own environmental agenda.

“Rio should not be an excuse in Europe to do less, but should be a motivation to do more because we have a special role to play,” said Leinen, a member of the Parliament’s environment committee and one of the few MEPs to attend the Rio conference.

He said Europe’s economic successes have inspired others, “so we have to adjust the model or reinvent with [a] sustainability agenda.”

The conference marked the 20th anniversary of the first post-Cold War Earth Summit, which produced landmark environmental treaties on biodiversity, climate change and desertification. But this year’s event produced no major binding deals and the 100 leaders attending signed off on a conference document - The Future We Want - that was negotiated in advance.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, nonetheless praised the 49 pages of mostly voluntary pledges.

“The outcome document provides a firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being,” he said in a speech on Friday. “It is now our responsibility to build on it. Rio+20 has affirmed fundamental principles – renewed essential commitments – and given us new direction.”

Business involvement

Despite widespread disappointment in the conference, participants said there were bright spots.

Leinen – who was part of a informal European Parliament delegation since the body decided to sit out the conference due to high travel costs – said businesses were beginning to recognise the value of greener growth.

“I never saw so many businesses than at this Rio+20,” he said in a telephone interview. “Intelligent business leaders have well understood that sustainability is fundamental for doing business and an unsustainable world will distort and destroy business.”

Neil Hawkins, vice president of sustainability and the environment at Dow Chemical, agreed, saying that 24 multinational companies committed to ramp up protection of ecosystems.

“From my perspective, the Rio meetings were extremely successful for business,” the US-based executive said on the final day (22 June) of the three-day Rio conference.

“Governments around the world are facing a lot of different challenges, as are businesses, but in these targeted areas I see a lot of leadership from business that really crystallised at Rio, and coming out of it I expect to see a lot of momentum.”

Keeping subsidies alive

But the absence of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron doomed the chances of audacious outcomes. And environmentalists blamed the dearth of global obligations in part on business pressure.

The Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels group that monitors lobbying in the EU, warned of “unprecedented levels of industry activity” at Rio.

Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth accused oil companies of blocking any hope of getting world leaders to commit to ending fossil fuel subsidies that the International Energy Agency estimates exceed $400 billion annually. He also said energy companies diluted UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative by ensuring that oil, gas and nuclear power were not excluded.

With Rio, “We haven’t really gone backwards, but we’re haven’t gone forwards,” Rehman said, adding that activists now need to focus on the grass-roots.

“What a lot of organisations are saying here is that what really needs to happen is we need to be taking the fight back to our national [governments], back to the EU, and try to deliver the transformation at the national and regional level.

“We need to be able create the political constituencies and the political will so that these types of international summits are actually successful,” he said.