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As Rio+20 concludes, a Q&A on what's next

A U.N. development summit ended with an agreement that put off the implementation of many proposals on protecting the world's natural resources, leaving many attendees asking the question, "What next?"
Image: A native is pictured as he participates
Away from the official meetings of the U.N. summit in Rio de Janeiro, a "people's summit" also concluded on Friday.Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

A U.N. development summit ended on Friday with an agreement that put off the implementation of many proposals on protecting the world's natural resources from climate change and globalization, leaving many attendees asking the question, "What next?"

Nearly 100 heads of state and government gathered over the past three days in efforts to establish "sustainable development goals," a U.N. drive built around economic growth, the environment and social inclusion.

While some governments were reasonably satisfied with the outcome document for the Rio+20 summit, others were disappointed and even angry with a perceived lack of ambition and sense of urgency to deal with the problems arising from rises in consumption, population and industrialization.

Following is a Q+A on what could happen next after the Rio+20 outcome:

The aim of the summit was to agree on ways to achieve economic growth in a way that ensures everyone in the world has access to sustainable food, energy and water without further damaging the environment.

Governments have endorsed a universal shift to a "green economy," which would amount to a transformation of traditional consumption and production practices.

The hope is that companies and individuals will change their ways of doing business and their lifestyles.

Corporate and government accounting will likely reflect environmental profit and loss within a decade, thanks partly to Rio+20, backers of the plan said.

But achieving wider goals will not happen overnight.

"The green economy is not a big bang, it's a transition," said Donald Kaberuka of the African Development Bank. "Some say it will take up to 50 years. Rio is not supposed to be the end of the process but the beginning of the journey."

Practical work on the Rio+20 agreement will begin immediately, Brazil's minister of the environment, Izabella Teixeira, said on Friday.

"We have methods and deadlines to be met until we complete the process that will be consolidated in 2014 or 2015," she said.

European Union Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik was more pragmatic.

"We need to sleep on it and see (the text) with less emotions and then we will have to focus concretely on the process after Rio," he told Reuters.

The sustainable development goals, or SDGs, will have to be set by the end of 2014 at the latest so that they can complement a revised set of millennium development goals aimed at eradicating poverty, when the current ones expire in 2015.

U.N. officials will have to work on avoiding too much overlap between the two sets of development goals.

"Before we begin to move on to universal goals, there is still unfinished business with MDs which has to be dealt with before 2015. The discussion now is on the post-2015 agenda. That conversation will be very important," said AfDB's Kaberuka.

A working group with representatives from 30 countries - six representatives for each continent - will work on defining SDGs and present a study to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013.

Work on identifying on how much finance for sustainable development is needed and ways to raise it have to be finished by a U.N. meeting in September 2014.

Work on some other issues will take longer, with years such as 2020 or 2025 specified in the agreement.

Working groups will be appointed to work on some areas, like SDGs or ocean protection.

Potocnik said there was a proposal, which he dubbed "friends of the paragraphs," for groups of countries with a special interest in a topic in the agreement to work on it.

International bodies could also play a role in work on implementation, he added, without specifying which ones.

A follow-up to the Rio+20 summit of the same scale in 10 years or even another 20 years has not been set, but many observers at the summit say progress on some of the issues in Friday's agreement needs to be measured.

Some of the timelines in the Rio+20 agreement are so far into the future that measures may be too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and globalization.

"We don't have 20 years or even 10," said Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International.

"History tells us little will happen in real terms and definitely not at the timescale of urgency climate science tells us is needed," he added.

A series of much-hyped global summits on environmental policy has now fallen short of expectations, going back at least to a 2009 U.N. meeting in Copenhagen that ended in near chaos.

As a result, many ecologists, activists, and business leaders believe that progress on environmental issues must be made locally with the private sector, without counting on the help of international accords.

"We've believed all along that the more groundbreaking action at Rio+20 would be outside of the formal process," said Manish Bapna, acting president of the World Resources Institute.

On the sidelines of the summit, companies and local governments launched various projects and commitments.

On Wednesday, eight multilateral development banks pledged $175 billion over 10 years in support of sustainable transport worldwide.

Earlier this week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and colleagues from around the world sought to show how cities could make progress even if a multinational agreement was not possible.

"Perhaps some of the most important work that is happening here are what used to be considered side events -- the partnerships between private sector and academia and NGOs and local governments and state level governments," said Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.