Rio+20 Nets Little for Ocean Protection

“Concerning oceans, there is reason to suggest that the outcomes could be characterized as Rio+20 minus 40.” That was the assessment of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle as she reported on the decided lack of progress from the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the second decadal follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit.

Following a year of negotiations and a 10-day conference involving 45,000 people, the final 49-page document produced by the conference, entitled The Future We Want, was long on hopes and dreams but short on actual commitments—particularly when it comes to measures to strengthen ocean protection.

Some looked for a silver lining, in that ocean issues are at least drawing more attention than before: “Oceans are on the record in a way that they weren't 20 years ago….” said Charlotte Smith of Oceans Inc. Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition summed it up colorfully, stating that “Rio+20 has shown less backbone than your average cnidarian [jellyfish, anemones, e.g.] but if we use this to take the action clearly indicated then progress will have been made.”

An effort to launch negotiations for a new treaty to protect the high seas was scuttled by a coalition comprised of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and Venezuela—who effectively blocked specific rulemaking on environmental protections in international waters during late-night, closed-door negotiations. In the end, a decision on where to go from here was deferred for two and a half years.