Rio +20: What does it augur for the 2016 Olympics?

The UN's global conference underscored just how much ground Rio de Janeiro itself has to cover when it comes to environmental sustainability. It also showed what a long way the city has to go to prepare for the 2014 World Cup games and the 2016 Olympics.

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    Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during the closing ceremony of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 22.
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A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

Rio +20 and Rio, like Carnival with less trash. And less music, and more traffic, and what seemed like the entire Brazilian Navy sailing up and down the coast. There were also no costumes, unless you count people like the Brazilian Indian in full regalia who aimed a bow and arrow at BNDES security personnel …

Actually the only way the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was like Carnival, is that Rio de Janeiro was invaded by visitors, anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 people. In the South Zone, everywhere you turned there was someone with a dangling identity card.

The traffic jams occurred not because blocos of people were dancing and drinking in the streets, but because of demonstrations, and the hordes of unsustainable vehicles hogging the road. Escorted by sirening motorcycle cops and hovering helicopters, dignitaries from 190 countries came from and went to the Riocentro convention center in the West Zone in exact opposition to the times and directions of the carioca rush hour. To ease the way, city hall suspended the normal morning lane reversals, gave students three days off from class, shut down municipal agencies, and told people to either stay home or use public transportation.

Many visitors criticized the lack of organization and poor service they encountered. Thousands slept in makeshift camps at the Sambadrome and in a park, because Rio didn’t have enough hotel rooms. A Japanese delegation on the way to a sewage treatment plant took a wrong turn and came face to face with armed men in a Caju favela.

Maurie Carr, project coordinator for the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, a Washington DC-based non-profit, stayed a week at a retreat a short drive up into the mountains from Duque de Caxias, a poor bedroom community neighboring Rio de Janeiro. Some mornings it took her three hours to reach the convention center. “It was a lesson learning to just let it go,” she said, adding that despite everything she intends to return. “I told my mother to put Rio on the list,” she said, having managed to sneak in some hiking, plus visits to Leblon, Ipanema, Rocinha, and Vidigal.

The conference also underscored just how much ground Rio de Janeiro itself has to cover when it comes to environmental sustainability. A minuscule amount of trash is recycled, and Guanabara Bay, for example, is horrendously polluted despite millions of dollars having been devoted to a cleanup. At least Eike Batista’s  Grupo EBX has been taking 250 kilos of trash out of the Rodrigo de Freitas lake every day.

All in all, much of Rio + 20 didn’t augur well for the Pope’s visit next year, the 2014 World Cup games in Rio, nor the 2016 Olympics. But the situation could change when new mass transportation options are to come online, in addition to the Transoeste articulated bus lane that opened earlier this month.

The conference results were also disappointing, as most people expected they would be. “Governments are useless,” says Clayton Ferrara, who traveled from Florida to Rio representing the youth-led IDEAS for Us movement. “Every day in the plenary session, representatives of all the different countries got up and went on and on about what they were doing for sustainability,” he says, noting that attendance thinned out as the days wore on.

But for Rio de Janeiro there were three positive aspects of the conference.

One was the networking that took place, among business, academia, the third sector, and even the boring government representatives. The Peoples’ Summit, side meetings, conferences, seminars, and chance encounters brought together all kinds of ideas and information. Many US universities held gatherings to connect local alumni and researchers who’d come for the conference.

Another was consciousness-raising. For days, adults and schoolchildren lined up to see the gorgeously creative Humanidade 2012 exhibit, held in a temporary structure built next to the Copacabana Fort. An estimated 200,000 people got the chance to have artists and intellectuals provoke thought about lifestyle and the environment. The Rio and São Paulo industrial federations footed the bill.

And the local watchdog organization Rio Como Vamos did a survey that found that a staggering 74 percent of the local population knew about the conference and what it was up to. The 1,800 people surveyed were from different parts of the city, with a variety of income levels and ages; this should help when it comes to the spread of recycling and local cleanup efforts.

Last but certainly not least are real measures and goals that were announced before and during the conference. These include:

  • The creation of the Bolsa Verde Rio, a market to trade carbon credits and other environmental compensation mechanisms, to aid companies in meeting Brazilian legal requirements for environmental sustainability
  • As a result of a demonstration near the Riocentro, a planned meeting between representatives of Vila Autódromo residents unhappy about their removal due to Olympic preparations,  with UN and Brazilian government officials
  • The 2012 Rio Declaration, an agreement among Brazilian and other governors to reduce energy consumption in public buildings by 20 percent  and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation by 20 percent by 2020, in addition to other measures
  • A decision by the C40 Cities mayors’ summit to reduce carbon emissions in 58 cities and to share information on sustainability. These cities, home to 320 people and the source of 21 percent of world GDP, are responsible for 12 percent of the world’s emissions. Rio is set to reduce emissions by 12 percent by 2016. Even so, these are expected to increase – just less than they would, otherwise.
  • A proposal by the Rio de Janeiro industrial federation to privatize sewage collection, treatment, and disposal
  • The creation of a UN sustainability research center, the Centro Rio +
  • A Banco do Brasil loan to clean up the lagoons in Barra da Tijuca
  • A proposal from city hall to be voted on by the city council, to allow tax incentives for green construction methods and and building design

Twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit, so much has changed. An enduring memory of this blogger of that UN conference is people excitedly lining up to try out a new payment form for public phones, a thin card replacing the traditional token. It was a time when the Soviet Union had just crumbled and the Berlin Wall was newly demolished. Brazilian indigenous groups made cameo appearances to remind us of their environmental roles, just as they did last week.

Assuming the earth will continue to exist, who knows what Rio will look like in twenty more years? Much will depend on young people such as those pictured at the original post, clowning around at the Humanidade 2012 exhibit.

--- Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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