In the end, the leaders decided that they could not go home empty handed. They signed off on both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, making broad pledges to solve some of the most complex problems facing humanity. Countries also agreed to a laundry list of goals spelled out in a document known as Agenda 21, which eventually spawned the Convention to Combat Desertification. Although the agreements lacked teeth, they created formal international processes that engaged almost the entire world and eventually led to more targeted accords (see ‘Global awakening’).
At the end of the summit, Richard Benedick, who had negotiated the ozone accord for the United States, told The New York Times that “the history books will refer back to this day as a landmark in a process that will save the planet from deterioration”. But he and others warned that progress would not come quickly.
The pace turned out to be far slower than anticipated, however. Although nations have made some marginal advances, the three conventions have failed to achieve even a fraction of the promises that world leaders trumpeted two decades ago. Dismal grades dominate Nature’s report cards on the Rio treaties, although the assessment also highlights some progress and offers pointers for the future. As diplomats and leaders prepare to converge on Rio this month for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, they will be looking back to consider how to do better.
“What we have today is nowhere near what the science says we need,” says Manish Bapna, acting president of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. “But is it closer than we would have been in the absence of climate negotiations? I would say the answer is an unequivocal yes.”
As executive secretary of the CBD at the time, Djoghlaf lamented that countries were nowhere near to meeting the treaty’s chief goal of “significantly” cutting species loss by 2010 (see ‘Report card: Convention on Biological Diversity’). Instead, he said, “we continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate”.
“We have been talking about how to implement the CBD for 20 years. At this rate, we will still be talking about it at Rio+80,” says Sendashonga.