Rio+20, a gathering of world leaders to mark the 20th anniversary of the ground-breaking Earth Summit, begins today. But with countries grappling with massive debts, asks Andrea Vance, has the energy gone out of sustainable development talks?
In the carnival city of Rio de Janeiro, colourful demonstrations in the run- up to the biggest gathering organised by the United Nations were to be expected.
Already a giant "trillion-dollar bill" has been unfurled on Copacabana beach to protest against fossil-fuel subsidies and overnight a bread sculpture of a military tank was to be marched into one of Brazil's famous favelas (shanty town) to draw attention to defence spending.
But, as 50,000 participants and heads of state and ministers from 193 countries converge on the Brazilian city - generating an estimated 3600 tonnes of carbon emissions - world leaders are gloomy and activists are frustrated at progress.
Two decades ago, expectations around the first Earth Summit, also held in Rio, were much more buoyant. Major treaties on climate change and biodiversity were signed. We have since moved backwards, experts say. Global leaders are troubled with mounting debt, the threatened collapse of the euro and the bloody crisis in Syria.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently warned the conference was too important to fail. "We may be heading towards the end of our future."
For the past year, officials have negotiated on a deal which leaders will endorse at the end of the three- day summit. Both the European Union and World Wildlife Fund have described the draft text as "woefully inadequate".
At the heart of the conference is how poorer nations can grow their economies without pumping more toxic chemicals into our fragile environment. One of the key aims - which New Zealand supports - is an end to $1 trillion worth of fossil- fuel subsidies.
But developing countries argue renewable energy sources - such as bio-fuels, wind farms and solar energy - are pricey.
Developed countries appear to operate a "do as we say, not as we do" approach - with many key political leaders such as United States President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even New Zealand's John Key not bothering to attend.
Environment Minister Amy Adams, leading the New Zealand delegation, says a greater degree of realism surrounds the summit.
"One of the themes coming through in the pre-discussion is that, when the world got together in Rio in 1992, there was more bullish optimism about how easily solved some of these issues might be. I think the experience over 20 years is that they are perhaps more challenging than the original Rio summit had appreciated."
Adams says she is coming to the conference "with a hope" that commitments to sustainable development will be reaffirmed. "We have to stop thinking of it as being the economy or the environment," she says.
"It is not a matter of which wins. It is matter of accepting that economic growth has to be sustainable."
She doesn't accept that New Zealand's 100 per cent pure image has taken a battering. During a speech to the summit, she will highlight that most energy consumed comes from renewable sources.
More than 30 per cent of New Zealand's land area and some 8 per cent of territorial seas are in reserves, it operates a "world-leading" fisheries management system and one of the first emissions-trading schemes in the world.
It also launched the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases to tackle food security, poverty eradication and growth, without upping emissions.
WWF-New Zealand executive director Chris Howe rejects the idea that the summit is just a talkfest.
"What's the alternative? Not doing it - which is worse."
But a lack of political leadership, particularly from developed countries, will stall progress.
The WWF's Beyond Rio report highlighted New Zealand's poor environmental performance since the Earth Summit, but he says the Government must take a constructive approach in Rio to ensure the world can meet future food, water and energy needs.
"Developed countries have to show that they are making up for resources we've used so everyone will come along with us. All international law is soft law, it's only when it gets translated into national legislation that it can actually take effect."
Green party MP Kennedy Graham was at the original Earth Summit and is one of 233 MPs from 76 countries attending the summit. He has been blogging extensively since arriving last week. Graham says he is optimistic more can be achieved than "cheerful whistling". But he says the approach is "gently as she goes".
EARTH TO WORLD LEADERS
* The ground-breaking Earth Summit tapped into growing concerns about the environment and established a global treaty on biodiversity. It paved the way for the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases.
* About 50,000 people are expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro for the three-day United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.
* There are 193 member countries and 120 heads of government are expected to attend - but not those from the United States, Britain, Germany or New Zealand.
* Topics to be debated are clean energy, food, and the oceans.
* So far the agreement text - titled The Future We Want - runs to 50 pages and 287 paragraphs.
* Brazil has offered to pay for airfares, food, and accommodation for any poor nation that can't afford to be represented.
* A 24-hour "Twitterstorm" kicked off as part of orchestrated pressure on world leaders to agree to cut fossil-fuel subsidies. Tens of thousands of people tweeted the hashtag EndFossilFuelSubsidies.
* Oil exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are expected to lobby to have the reference deleted from the draft text.
* Logistically the summit is a "test run" for the Brazilian city which is gearing up to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
- © Fairfax NZ News