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What's in a name? "UN Sustainable Development Conference"

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After 10 years of zooming around the world to cover the ozone, climate, and biodiversity negotiations, I realize the outcome of Rio+20 (and meetings of the like) has been staring me in my face.

It became clear when Rio+20 concluded with much applause, but little else in terms of solid outcomes. Yes, there's a lukewarm 53-page document titled, "The Future We Want," detailing ways to alleviate poverty by ramping up sustainable development globally. Yes, some credit is owed to the negotiators since any agreement is better than none (hey, it's happened before – just look at the climate talks in Copenhagen). And yes, it's clear that thousands of sideline events have helped inspire and prompt awareness and actions from the grassroots to international level.

That said, the upshot is difficult to swallow.

Counting pre-meeting negotiations and other secondary events, Rio+20 took place over 10 days. As an Editor for IISD Reporting Services, which covered the nitty-gritty details of the negotiations, side events and special focus days, such as on business and oceans, I've been fine-tuning reports as they come in.

Image courtesy of UNCSD

While reading through a "curtain raiser," overviewing Rio+20's history, I guffawed at its title, "A Brief History of UN Sustainable Development Conferences." Yes, Rio's outcome, and perhaps the process itself, seemed implied in that title - unsustainable development conferences.

One doesn't have to look far for proof. There's of course the meeting's carbon footprint. The UN staff alone generated an estimated 3,600 tons of CO2 – the same amount of GHGs emitted by 640 cars in one year - and that's a small fraction of the 50,000 some-odd attendees.

Then, there's the weak outcome document that acknowledges the potholed progress made in actualizing sustainable development since the 1992 Earth Summit, but does little to address the 1 billion people still living in extreme poverty and 1.3 billion who don't have electricity in their homes. Reaffirming old commitments (over and over again) is well and good, but delivering commitments on climate change, water and food scarcity, energy development and voracious natural resource use, would have been well timed and inspirational.

Instead, more "UN Sustainable Development Conferences" are planned to hammer out the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as promised in the "Future We Want." This means the next few years will focus on pinpointing what the SDGs are and how to make good on them.

Still, some progress was made outside the negotiations with over 200 commitments by business leaders, including, Microsoft's promise to begin taxing itself on carbon emissions to go carbon neutral, and the Coca Cola Company's promise to start recycling water in its plants and improve water efficiency by 20 percent by 2015. The country of Mozambique launched its Green Economy Road map at Rio+20 as a way to guide socially and ecologically responsible growth despite its newfound oil and gas reserves, and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative pledged of world-wide access to modern energy, gained momentum.

No, I don't think anyone expected Rio+20 to be a panacea for the fracture between the social, economic and environmental components of sustainable development. Entrenched problems are hard to repair. But, wouldn't it have been rousing if, in the words of many participants at the Rio Conventions Pavilion (a Rio+20 sideline event), the negotiations had taken a break from "business as usual," and displayed business as "un-usual."

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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