Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — Tragedy and farce. Those are the two general impressions conveyed by much of the world’s media regarding the global negotiations taking place here this week, which harken back to the historical treaty talks held 20 years ago in the same city.

Journalists covering the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, knew something was odd when the negotiations wrapped up before the arrival of world leaders and the start of the high-level talks on Wednesday. Usually, brinksmanship takes this wrangling well into the last night of the summit, and often into the next day. In this case, notes Peter Bjerregaard, a Danish freelance journalist, “the summit was over before it even began.”

Negotiators, charged with shaping a path to “reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet”, came to an agreement easily because the final text of their declaration is long on words like “should” and “encourage,” and short on words like “must.” Basically, the parties agreed to ask little of each other.

The European press has been particularly critical of the outcome, as reflected in the coverage of Carlos Corominas from Spain’s EFE news agency, and The Guardian, which probably has the most extensive English-language coverage of the summit. Development economist Jeffrey Sachs, on the other hand, argues there are promising elements of the inter-governmental agreement that haven’t received much attention, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But the media, and civil society in general, might be focusing on the wrong results. Several veteran observers like former Senator Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation, and Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) say the talks were bound to disappoint. The interesting, and perhaps more newsworthy, parts of the summit were to be found away from the negotiations, in side events where NGOs, businesses and other groups gathered to present, discuss, and plan concrete actions to achieve greener growth.

Most of the US media had low expectations, largely due to the recent failures of international environmental negotiations and the sluggish economy. The major American television networks have virtually no presence here. Latin American, Asian and European broadcasters and wire agencies are in full force, but their North American counterparts, apart from The Associated Press, are not visible at all.

US dailies such as The New York Times and The Washington Post dispatched their Latin American correspondents to cover the summit, as their respective environmental correspondents, John Broder and Juliet Eilperin, supplemented as best they could from home. Ken Weiss from the Los Angeles Times is here, but only because of a fellowship provided by O Eco and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, where I am director.

“This is a shocking change from 10 years ago when the LA Times sent me to cover the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where there were perhaps a dozen US newspapers present,” Weiss says. Since then, of course, the US media landscape has changed dramatically. The Times (with its parent company in bankruptcy) has suffered repeated rounds of layoffs in the intervening decade and its travel budget has been greatly reduced.

The Brazilian media have by far the largest presence here, accounting for roughly 57 percent of the nearly 4,000 accredited journalists, according to UN statistics. Indeed, one of the biggest differences from 20 years ago is the change in fortunes of the host country. Back in 1992, Brazil was an economic basket case with relatively little clout for its size, apart from owning most of the Amazon - the vast tropical rainforest that is probably the most important ecosystem on the planet. Today, the country is an emerging power riding an economic boom, and its negotiators exude a sense of triumph at having gaveled through an agreement so quickly.

The Brazilian press, while not as scathing as the European media, is critical of the summit’s outcome nonetheless, according to Dani Chiaretti of the local newspaper, Valor Economico, “None of the Brazilian media declared this treaty as something to be proud of,” she says. “We all realize the government just wanted to get a deal done.”

Indian journalist Joydeep Gupta expressed similar sentiments in his article, “Diplomacy Beats Sustainability at Rio+20,” at TheThirdPole.net. Much of the Indian and Chinese press, however, seem ocused on the defense of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” code words for the principle that, as the Hindustan Times put it, “targets should be mandatory for rich nations and voluntary for countries that are still developing.” The US openly opposes this “common interpretation,” as State Department official Jonathan Pershing calls it, arguing that the dividing line it establishes is outdated.

“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.