The U.S. side of the Niagara Falls is pictured during the "polar vortex" that affected about 240 million people in North America, Canada, January 8, 2014.
Aaron Harris / Reuters

It is widely accepted that humanity is causing long-term irreversible damage to the planet. Recent scientific studies by groups such as the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the Royal Society confirm that the climate system and many of the world’s vital ecosystems are in danger. There are also serious concerns about water, food, and energy scarcity; it is not at all clear how the world will satisfy the needs of a population that will plateau at nine billion by 2050. Doing so, and doing so sustainably, should be the core objective of international environmentalism. Yet countries have not committed to sustainability as a goal, let alone agreed on the proper policies to achieve it and the appropriate distribution of its costs.

In the absence of such a consensus, the Rio+20 Conference -- a high-level diplomatic summit held in Rio de Janeiro this past June -- sought to develop ways to both accelerate sustainable technological change and alleviate poverty. The conference was part of a longer-term project, which started with the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), aimed at updating the post–World War II multilateral order. That order was designed to promote widespread economic prosperity and maintain the modern welfare state. But it neglected sustainability. So, at least in the environmental realm, global summits since the first UNCHE have focused on making governments responsible for preventing irreversible and excessive environmental harm in their pursuit of prosperity.

The global UN summits on sustainable development held in 1992 and 2002 broadened the focus of the sustainability project from basic international environmental protection to the interconnections between the environment, economic development, and justice. Further, whereas the 1972 and 1992 conferences worked to create institutions and treaties, the 2002 meeting focused on promoting partnerships between the public and private sectors. The collective achievements of the UN summits of the last few decades are notable. Oil pollution in the oceans has been greatly reduced, chemical pollution on land has plummeted, stratospheric ozone depletion has been effectively addressed, safe drinking water is more readily available worldwide, and, in the industrialized world, energy demand is being decoupled from economic growth, as energy use per unit of GDP has been in decline since 1990.

The Rio+20 agenda was perhaps the most ambitious to date: develop institutions to promote a new technological system rooted in the principle of sustainability. When preparations for the conference began in May 2010, expectations about the outcome varied widely. Some participants hoped to simply update old international environmental regimes with stronger compliance measures. Others hoped for a broader reformulation of global environmental principles.

Given the lack of agreement, it took over two years for policymakers to produce a draft summit declaration. They adopted the final product -- entitled “The Future We Want” -- after near-constant negotiations throughout spring 2012. The declaration, which includes a cautious reaffirmation of prior efforts, was modest, with no binding legal or financial commitments. Although the declaration did call for the creation of sustainable development goals by 2015, universal membership in the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), and a new higher-level commission on sustainable development, it was largely an exercise in kicking the can down the road.

For one, the declaration put off discussions on sustainable production and consumption until the fall session of the UN General Assembly. It also tabled some other initiatives, such as organizing a conference on small island developing states and creating a replacement institution for the Conference on Sustainable Development, to later occasions. And a number of other ideas, such as establishing a UN ombudsman for sustainable development, creating a high commissioner for the environment, and converting UNEP into a permanent UN agency, were entirely abandoned.

Rio+20’s failures revealed harsh realities about the state of international environmental policy. There is still no scientific consensus on sustainability issues. It is thus difficult to mobilize broad support for grand initiatives. Further, developed and developing countries disagree about their respective responsibilities for achieving sustainable development. Indeed, Rio+20 saw the usual recriminations for environmental problems. Developing countries, led by China, continued to insist that they need technological and financial transfers from developed countries to attain higher levels of sustainability.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, meanwhile, sustainability has come to seem like a low priority. Media coverage of the summit was minimal, and only 57 heads of state participated, despite earlier announcements that as many as 119 would do so. The United States maintained a very low profile; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for a photo op on the last day, when she announced $20 million worth of new energy loans to Africa. Although both China and Brazil played constructive roles during negotiations, they continued to deflect criticisms of their own domestic practices.

Yet this dark cloud may have a silver lining. Governments weren’t the only game in Rio; between June 13 and June 22, there were over 3,000 events held on the margins of the conference, including a People’s Summit for civil society groups in town. If the Rio+20 Conference did not inspire confidence in countries’ commitment to sustainable development, the various side events, which provided an additional arena for networking, demonstrated that the private sector and NGOs are invested in the issue. Green business opportunities are mounting -- total global investment in renewables was $257 billion in 2011, up from $161 billion just two years prior. Thus there is real hope for further support for sustainable development from the private sector.

In the end, the impact of Rio+20 will depend on the steps taken following the conference -- not only at the UN General Assembly this fall but by the private sector and individual governments as well. The weak tone of “The Future We Want” declaration notwithstanding, Rio will be viewed as a success if participants follow up with real actions. A number of benchmarks, such as increased corporate investment in sustainable technologies, the creation of a science panel for sustainable development, and the formulation of sustainable development goals, will indicate in the months and years ahead the ultimate impact of the conference. Despite its failure to fulfill its initial promise, Rio+20 may still contribute to stronger institutional pressures on governments to pursue sustainable development policies.

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  • PETER M. HAAS is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
  • More By Peter M. Haas