Ma Jun: “A Huge Step Forward” in Rio?

The final document that emerged from the Rio+20 Earth Summit prompted vocal disappointment from many quarters, with Jonathan Watts going as far as to compare the conference with a 1930s League of Nations assembly. From Watts and Liz Ford at The Guardian:

[…] [C]ivil society groups and scientists were scathing about the outcome. Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo called the summit a failure of epic proportions. “We didn’t get the Future We Want in Rio, because we do not have the leaders we need. The leaders of the most powerful countries supported business as usual, shamefully putting private profit before people and the planet.”

Rio+20 was intended as a follow up on the 1992 Earth Summit, which put in place landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity, as well as commitments on poverty eradication and social justice. Since then, however, global emissions have risen by 48%, 300m hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6bn people. Despite a reduction in poverty, one in six people are malnourished.

The Guardian noted the more prominent roles that BRICS nations played in this year’s conference, highlighting Brazil’s. In an interview with chinadialogue’s Xu Nan, Ma Jun of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs suggested grounds for optimism in this new, less Western-centric process:

Xu Nan: How do you rate the declaration text the Rio+20 conference has produced?

Ma Jun: Generally, the NGOs here aren’t happy with it. And if you just look at the text, there doesn’t seem to be much progress – much of it is confirming or admitting what’s already happened, rather than moving forward.

But I have a different take.

The outcome of the Rio conference 20 years ago was led by the western developed nations – it reflected their concern for the environment. But 20 years later, things are different. The developing nations are very deeply involved, and some are very big players in sustainable development. So this text is more of a global consensus.

A discussion involving both northern and southern hemispheres is bound to be more difficult, and the text is bound to be the result of compromise – but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad outcome. After all, it includes many good principles for dealing with the problems.

Taking China as an example, 20 years ago it accepted the declaration under western guidance. Now, it only accepts what it can genuinely agree with. And that is a huge step forward.