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RIO DE JANEIRO - Burdened by low expectations, snarled by endless traffic congestion and shunned by President Obama, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism.
The anti-poverty organization CARE called the meeting "nothing more than a political charade," and Greenpeace said the gathering was "a failure of epic proportions."
The Pew Environment Group was slightly more charitable. "It would be a mistake to call Rio a failure," the group said, "but for a once-in-a-decade meeting with so much at stake, it was a far cry from a success."
But while the summit meeting's 283-paragraph agreement, called "The Future We Want," lacks enforceable commitments on climate change and other global challenges, the outcome reflects big power shifts around the world. These include a new assertiveness by developing nations in international forums and the growing capacity of grass-roots organizations and corporations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments.
The Obama administration offered no grand public gestures here, opting to focus on such smaller-scale development projects as clean cookstoves and local energy projects.
Europe more active
Europe, traditionally the driving force behind environmental action yet distracted now by efforts to contain a financial crisis, was considerably more active than the United States, taking part in nearly every corner of the sprawling conference, called Rio + 20 to commemorate the anniversary of the first Earth Summit held here in 1992.
"Probably those who are most frustrated, and who say they are frustrated, are the Europeans," Andre Correa do Lago, Brazil's chief negotiator at Rio + 20, said. "They think they can still indicate paths which others should follow."
The sheer size of the gathering -- nearly 50,000 participants including more than 100 heads of state or government -- may have raised expectations, in spite of the mixed record of previous such gatherings. The first Rio summit produced two landmark treaties, on climate change and biodiversity, that have so far failed to live up to their promises.
Yet despite this record, the activity outside the main negotiating sessions produced hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress.
"Even a complicated, diverse world can address problems not through treaties, but by identifying the goals that then inspire decentralized actions," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
For instance, Microsoft said it would roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Italian oil giant Eni said it would reduce its flaring of natural gas. Femsa, a Latin American soft-drink bottler, said it would obtain 85 percent of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable sources.
The Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, already experiencing dangerous sea-level rise, announced what it said would become the world's largest marine reserve, encompassing all 1,192 of its islands by 2017. A group of development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world's largest cities.
But the ubiquity of corporate and financial sponsorship made some uneasy.
"If George Orwell were alive today, he would be irritated, and then shocked, by the cynical way in which every lobby with an ax to grind and money to burn has hitched its wagon to the alluring phrase 'sustainable development,'" said Jagdish N. Bhagwati, a professor of economics at Columbia, in an essay called "Rio's Unsustainable Nonsense."
Still, some with decades of experience with such summit meetings take a more nuanced view. Thomas Lovejoy, a U.S. conservation biologist who was a driving force behind the first Earth Summit in 1992, said he remained discouraged by the lack of action in reducing carbon emissions.
But Lovejoy, who began working in the Amazon in 1965, also said he could recognize how some important progress had been made, especially in Brazil, since then.
"There was one national forest and one demarcated indigenous reserve," said Lovejoy, 70. "Now, 50 percent is under some form of protection."
Brazil, with command over its vast forests as well as an estimated 12 percent of the world's fresh water, remains crucial to any international preservation efforts. The rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon recently fell to its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1988.
Still, others who came here for the conference, like the indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire, 82, a chief of Brazil's Kayapo tribe, said such advances meant little. He said he found himself emphasizing the same things he spoke about at the original Earth Summit in 1992.
"Deforestation continues," said Metuktire. "The river is having dams built into it; the people don't listen."