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Rio +20 Summit kicks off amid global pessimism (+video)

Expectations are low at the UN conference that seeks to preserve Earth's ecosystems amid a growing population.

By Kenneth R. WeissLos Angeles Times / June 19, 2012

Brazilian army soldiers patrol the entrance of the Brazil Pavilion for the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development summit in Rio de Janeiro June 19, 2012. More than 50,000 policymakers, environmentalists and business leaders from around the world are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, marking the 20-year anniversary of the landmark Earth Summit that paved the way for the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases.

Nacho Doce/REUTERS


Rio De Janeiro

The United Nation’s biggest conference in history began in earnest in Brazil on Monday, with representatives from around the world looking to craft a plan to help lift billions of people out of poverty without exhausting the planet.

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European investment in the renewable energy sector has developed in recent years, thanks to lower costs and higher efficiency gains, making electricity generation increasingly competitive against traditional fossil fuel technologies, despite the financial crisis forcing governments to cut subsidies.

More than 115 presidents, prime ministers and other officials this week are planning to attend the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, which has drawn at least 50,000 people from 190 countries. Yet expectations remain low because of the world’s many economic woes.

“The European Debt crisis, U.S. joblessness and even the Chinese economic slowdown has sapped some people’s enthusiasm,” said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation.

President Barack Obama has no plans to attend the conference. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation, along with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Todd Stern, a special envoy for climate change.

Negotiators worked into the night Monday trying to finalize a master plan for social progress and managing natural resources. They hope to finish before Wednesday, when many international leaders plan to arrive to review proposals to slow down environmental degradation while providing enough food, clean water and clean energy for a worldwide population of 7 billion that’s expected to reach 9.3 billion by midcentury.

“This is a once-in-a generation opportunity,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been pushing to move beyond political promises and begin accomplishing goals.

Yet criticism has mounted in recent weeks over the details, with detractors raising concerns that the plan is being watered down and could result in weakened commitments from world leaders.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was at the conference Monday, joined others who have complained that the plan appears to be backsliding on commitments for deep cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gasses needed to avoid tipping into a danger zone of climate-related floods and droughts.

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