As the final high-level segment of negotiations begin here at Rio+20, a proposal to end nearly $1 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies hangs in the balance. 

In the weeks leading up to Rio+20, it seemed unlikely that the summit would even discuss fossil fuel subsidies — diplomats were preparing to offer up vague commitments and empty sound-bytes about “the future we want,” while avoiding difficult issues. 

But thanks to a massive outcry from the global public, a proposal to end fossil fuel subsidies was successfully thrust onto the agenda. Over a million people signed petitions to world leaders demanding that they “turn $1 trillion green”  by transferring public money from polluter handouts to clean energy and sustainable development. Big actions here at Rio+20 helped focus the global media on the demand — video of a giant trillion dollar bill being unfurled on the beach in Copacabana was broadcast to over 50 million O Globo viewers here in Brazil. 

Then came the Twitterstorm, a massive online action to make #endfossilfuelsubsidies one of the most talked about subjects on social media around the world. The storm quickly turned into a category 5 TwitterHurricane, with multiple tweets a second driving the hashtag to trend at #2 worldwide. Celebrities picked up the call to action, with Mark Ruffalo, Stephen Fry, Richard Branson, and others weighing in. Politicians also tweeted their support, from Nancy Pelosi and White House representatives in the US to important figures here at the Rio+20 talks, like UN Climate Secretary Christiana Figueres, EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, and former New Zealand Prime Minister and UNDP Chair Helen Clark. 

Negotiators here in Rio were forced to respond. On Monday evening, diplomats huddled for a high-level, contentious debate about how to deal with the problem of fossil fuel subsidies. In a small room in the center of the conference center, negotiators traded barbs back and forth, with the European Union and countries like the US and Mexico attempting to strengthen a paragraph on ending fossil fuel subsidies, and large oil exporters like Venezuela, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia blocking progress. Desperate to save face and finalize a text, the Brazilian chair of the meeting closed the session and sent a small group of countries off to discuss how to “find a way out of this problem.” Negotiators worked into the night and produced a bureaucratic masterpiece: a vague paragraph full of loopholes: 

225. Countries reaffirm the commitments they have made to phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development. We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by removing market distortions, including restructuring taxation and phasing out harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, with such policies taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries, with the aim of minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development and in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities.

Note how the text talks about a few countries reaffirming commitments, rather than the entire UN. All the mentions of “harmful,” “inefficient,” “encourage wasteful consumption,” etc. are designed to provide wiggle room for countries to avoid cutting subsidies. Most experts agree that all fossil fuel subsidies are inefficient and harmful (some more so than others), but without an agreed upon definition for any of the terms, countries can argue that they’re subsidies are just fine and should be left in place. 

The final clause about protecting the poor also provides some leeway, but in the right sort of way — subsidies should be phased out on a timeline and in a way that lifts up the poor. Numerous reports show that the vast majority of subsidies in developing countries actually help the middle-class and rich, not the poorest. A truly pro-poor development strategy would put public money towards more effective sustainable development programs, rather than fossil fuel subsidies. All in all, the text is worth little more than the paper it’s written on. There’s no specific timeline, no reporting mechanism, and no oversight — all key elements necessary for serious progress. 

But the Rio+20 conference isn’t over yet and as heads of state arrive here in Rio, there’s still room for meaningful progress. Pressure will quickly mount on Brazil’s Dilma to find someway to rescue the process and prevent a “Rio Failure.” Strengthening language around subsidies is low hanging fruit for her to pick. Other major players, like the United States or Mexico, could make a strong push to strengthen the language on subsidies or add on political declarations that reaffirm and strengthen their own commitments. As we saw at the Copenhagen climate conference, the final outcomes of these meetings are often hammered out in late-night, 11th-hour meetings. 

No matter the official outcome, two things are already clear. First, no matter what sort of progress they make on subsidies, world leaders should be ashamed by their profound failure to rise the challenge presented at Rio+20. From protecting the oceans to lifting up women’s rights to ending fossil fuel subsidies, they’ve offered little more than meaningless rhetoric, at best. Even worse, some countries have attempted to dismantle the progress made at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, weakening environmental protections and putting in dangerous proposals to commodify even more natural resources, opening them up for further corporate exploitation. 

Second, there is incredible new momentum in the fight to take on the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on our governments and transfer the billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies towards meaningful climate and poverty solutions. From the massive marches and demonstrations taking place on the ground here in Rio to the storms brewing across the internet, we’re finding new and powerful ways to bring our movement together and wield increasing political power. There’s no doubt that we still have a long way to go. But thanks to the hard work of millions of people across the planet, Rio+20 can be more of a beginning than an end, a chance to come together and get ready for difficult and inspiring work ahead. 


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