At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, 1,000 or so advanced delegates at Rio+20 (formally, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) laid down their pens and shut off their laptops. At noon, Brazil's worldly foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, gaveled through the Outcome Document from the chair. And by mid-afternoon, Rio was full of a sound to which that joyous city is unaccustomed: the collective moan of 40,000 environmentalists disappointed about the results. (Yes, you read that right: 40,000. Alongside 10,000 official government participants.) But if the environment movement expected Earth-saving outcomes from Rio, they were clearly enjoying too much of Brazil's famed cachaça.
That the Rio outcome fell short of the highest expectations was not only predictable, it was predicted -- by everybody. A senior European Union negotiator told me last month that the EU's major focus had already turned to lowering expectations. That was wise: No credible analysis of environmental agreements past tells us that a global summit of this kind, with a broad, encompassing agenda, can actually deliver genuine changes in the way the world does its economic or energy business. Throw in a gloomy global economic situation, and major leaps forward were a non-starter.
There were some avoidable mistakes. Brazil got into an early fight with Mexico, which was simultaneously preparing the Los Cabos Summit of the G-20, about which country would "lead" on green growth issues. (As if the problem is that we have too much leadership on green growth, rather than a dearth of it.) The result was that rather than the G-20 negotiations bolstering Rio, the two processes proceeded in parallel. For the Rio process itself, the U.N. produced a reasonable backdrop analysis but never managed to escape the utterly opaque language of "sustainable development," and did far less than was necessary to shape the political space for action.
In practice, though, the best-organized process in the world wasn't going to produce serious outcomes on environment issues, either in Rio or Mexico City. Climate is a thorny problem for both domestic and international governance. Multilateral fora at their best can be just a bit more than the sum of their parts; on the environment, the parts are awful. If the major economies, rich and developing, all had serious climate strategies, the question of which forum they negotiated in would be relevant but not determinant. Absent that, the shape of the negotiating table hardly matters.
What's more, the outcomes from Rio aren't all bad. The Europeans will be disappointed that there's not a shiny new environment agency at the U.N., a goal they've been pursuing since 2004 -- which means there've been eight years in which they've failed to explain to anyone but themselves why one might matter, or what, exactly, it would do. What the text does contain are some sensible changes to the way the existing U.N. Environment Program works -- a rare victory for the modest-but-sensible over the flashy-but-poorly-thought-through. The document will also launch a process (or, unfortunately, a series of processes) to negotiate something called "sustainable development goals," to mirror and/or replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015. Color me skeptical on the SDGs, and the process set out is cumbersome; but at least the summit avoiding locking in specific goals without doing the necessary spade work on evidence and coalition building. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is exactly the right thing to do.