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The Rio+20 summit has been met with protests from a group wanting military dicatatorships punished for tortuing prisoners.RICARDO MORAES/Reuters

As more than 100 world leaders descend on Rio de Janeiro for a global conference on the environment this week that's supposed to build on the 1992 Earth Summit, some environmentalists say these large international gatherings have lost their value.

"We don't need the heads of state here, frankly," Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group, an Ottawa-based environmental organization, said from Rio. "Quite honestly the grandstanding around some of these treaties, it was nonsense and we knew it was nonsense at the time."

Mr. Mooney and others say progress on environmental protection is more likely to come "bottom up," from regional initiatives and non-traditional players and not from big international conventions.

"The expectation that a lot of formal top-down multilateral agreements are going to pave the way, no one believes that any more," said Hank Venema of the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. He said better results can be found in agreements like the Natural Capital Declaration, signed by chief executives of financial institutions from around the world pledging to incorporate environmental factors in their operations. "The hope is basically that the bottom up, the regional initiatives, the local stories, can be scaled up and replicated," Mr. Venema said. "From my perspective, that's where the momentum lies and that's where the hope lies."

It's easy to see why there is so much skepticism about this week's meeting in Rio, officially called the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or "Rio+20." When leaders met in the same convention centre 20 years ago for the first Earth Summit, they signed Agenda 21, a series of pledges for the 21st century to protect biological diversity, curb climate change, eradicate poverty and stop desertification.

Today, almost none of those pledges has been fulfilled. A recent report by the UN's Environment Program tracked 90 goals from Agenda 21 and hundreds of other international conventions. It found that significant progress had been made on just four; reducing ozone depletion, removing lead from gasoline, improving access to water supplies and boosting research for marine pollution. Some or no progress had been made on 64 targets and there was further deterioration on eight, such as increased destruction of coral reefs. Progress on 14 others couldn't be measured because of a lack of data.

There's isn't much hope that Rio+20 will change things. Several leaders have skipped the event, including U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Those who did show up are expected to sign a 53-page statement that contains no specifics. There had been hope the leaders would agree to "sustainable development goals" but that fell through and the statement is so weak it was greeted with boos by some delegates when it was unveiled at a preparatory gathering Tuesday. "There is no action. It's very disappointing," said Aleksandra Nasteska, co-founder of We Canada, a coalition of activists that was among some 50,000 participants in the preparatory meetings.

For Mr. Mooney, the lack of vaunted declarations is progress. He said delegates at the preliminary meetings have been more focused on details such as figuring out how resources can be better deployed to make real progress. And they realize that the world is coping with a financial crisis in Europe and a recession elsewhere. "I honestly think there is a sense of reality here, which is not bad," he said.