“The most important pillar of the Chinese government’s policy in Rio is that we must protect common but differentiated responsibilities,” says Hongxiang Huang, who reports for China’s Southern Weekly newspaper and has uncovered a mining scandal by Chinese companies in Ecuador. Chinese authorities fear that environmental concerns will be used to justify what they allege to be trade barriers, such as the EU imposing a carbon tax on airplane flights. And those in Rio seem even less transparent than at the annual climate summits. They only inform the state-owned Chinese media about press briefings ahead of time, and are unwilling to talk reporters from privately owned media, according to Hongxiang and NewsChina magazine’s Jessica Wang

“There is less concern by the general public back in China than during previous UN conferences on climate change,” says Wang. “News filed from Rio is rarely placed in catchy positions on the websites’ front pages and the micro-blogging in China also does not indicate Rio+20 is a hot issue.”

The indifference can make it seem like Rio+20 was a waste, but some argue this reflects a misunderstanding of what these conferences have become: vast networking sessions where those pursuing sustainable development exchange ideas and contacts, present their achievements (and if they’re honest, their failures), and commit to exciting new projects for the future.

“This conference is like the Internet come alive,” enthuses the NRDC’s Scherr. “Hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments are going to come out of Rio - a veritable cloud of commitments.” The secretary-general Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies have made registered commitments totaling $513 billion toward advancing sustainable development - a number that deserves closer scrutiny, but on the surface at least looks impressive.

The side events, in other words, have now become the main event. You can get a sense of all the exciting activity bubbling up from the business sector, the NGOs, and the grass-roots groups by checking out some of the stories posted by the 30 journalists from 20 countries that EJN and O Eco brought to the Summit, or by following the twitter hashtag #Rioplus20. The biggest splash came from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All campaign, which aims to improve energy access and efficiency, and has drawn tens of billions of dollars in commitments.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the final agreement refers to the creation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which build off the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed to 10 years ago in Johannesburg. The latter focused on alleviating poverty, hunger, and disease. The new goals would take closer aim at environmental problems and apply to all countries, not just developing ones.

“We tried the treaty route, the international law route, and that turned out to be difficult, cumbersome and overly legalistic,” says Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Non-binding but inspiring goals can be effective. The MDGs are non-binding, but they’ve captured the public imagination [in developing countries]. I’m hoping the SDGs can do the same. A concise, well-thought-out set of SDGs could inspire a generation of action, and we need the inspiration.”

While the summit agreement supports the concept of SDGs, however, there have been no formal discussions of their substance. That will be left up to the UN General Assembly, with the aim of adopting specific goals by 2013 to be implemented starting in 2015.

“Time will tell whether there’s an important legacy [to this conference],” says Sachs. “If the SDGs become like the MDGs then it will be a success.”

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James Fahn is the executive director of Internews's Earth Journalism Network and the author of A Land on Fire.