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Rio+20 U.N. environmental summit's unhappy ending

It was hard to find a happy soul at the end of the Rio+20 environmental summit.

Not within the legion of bleary-eyed government negotiators from 188 nations who met in a failed attempt to find a breakthrough at the U.N. conference on sustainable development.

Not among the thousands of activists who decried the three-day summit that ended late Friday as dead on arrival. Not even the top U.N. official who organized the international organization's largest-ever event.

"This is an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy," said Sha Zukang, secretary-general of the conference, nicely summing up the mood.

In the end, this conference was a conference to decide to have more conferences.

Blast from the past
That result was hailed as a success by the 100 heads of state who attended. Given how environmental summits have failed in recent years as global economic turmoil squashes political will to take on climate and conservation issues, the mere fact of agreeing to talk again in the future constitutes victory.

Faced with the real prospect of complete failure, negotiators who struggled for months to hammer out a more ambitious final document ended up opting for the lowest common denominator. Just hours before the meeting opened Wednesday, they agreed on a proposal that makes virtually no progress beyond what was signed at the original 1992 Earth Summit, removing the kind of contentious initiatives activists contend are required to avoid an environmental meltdown.

"We've sunk so low in our expectations that reaffirming what we did 20 years ago is now considered a success," said Martin Khor, executive director of the Geneva-based South Centre and a member of the U.N. Committee on Development Policy.

Indeed, the word "reaffirm" is used 59 times in the 49-page document titled "The Future We Want." They reaffirm the need to achieve sustainable development (but not mandating how), reaffirm commitment to strengthening international cooperation (just not right now) and reaffirm the need to achieve economic stability (with no new funding for the poorest nations).

What's missing
Some of the biggest issues activists wanted to see in the document that didn't make it in included a call to end subsidies for fossil fuels, language underscoring the reproductive rights of women, and some words on how nations might mutually agree to protect the high seas, areas that fall outside any national jurisdictions.

"We saw anything of value in the early text getting removed one by one. What is left is the clear sense that the future we want is not one our leaders can actually deliver," said Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo. "We now need to turn the anger people around the world are feeling into creative, thoughtful and meaningful action."

On the glass half full side of things, while the effort to make progress on multilateral talks among the collective U.N. body were a disappointment, the big gathering produced nearly 700 promises and advances made by individual countries, companies and other organizations, in total worth about $500 billion if actually followed through.

For instance, the United States agreed to partner with more than 400 companies, including Walmart, Coca-Cola and Unilever, to support their efforts to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020.

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