It is twenty years since the first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Later this month, the city will host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. After the debacle of COP15 in Denmark, there seems to be a more pragmatic approach to these talks – but will this achieve anything?

I’ve taken a closer look because as well as attending the talks (as a delegate of the United Nations Association of Victoria), I’m making a documentary about them. And the first thing I noticed was that the summit is focusing on implementation barriers, rather than setting a raft of additional targets.

All indications show the main themes of the talks will be developing the green economy and devising institutional frameworks that can help deliver the targets already agreed at previous summits. The feeling I get is that there’s a realisation that we’re not moving very quickly towards the targets already agreed. So just setting more targets wouldn’t help.

Perhaps the global economic situation hanging over the talks is a factor. The first of seven critical issues the talks will focus on is jobs, and organisers seem keen to emphasise the economic element of sustainability.

But is this the right way to go? Some of the people I’ve interviewed from NGOs are clearly concerned that this will become more of an economic development discussion – away from the original ethos of the Earth Summit.

Perhaps such pragmatism is necessary (economic development is certainly vital to sustainability). And perhaps this approach will enable the summit to make good progress. After all, if they can come up with a framework that countries can adopt, the mechanism itself will do the work. But for me it also risks failing to capture people’s imaginations.

It looks like heads of state may feel the same way. They typically fly in for the signing ceremonies at these occasions — the original Rio summit attracted 165 heads of state. Yet as I write this, it seems that only six of the G20 leaders have committed to attend.

Perhaps the failures of COP15 have lowered people’s expectations about what a summit can achieve. If so, then maybe a few significant achievements will sneak through under the radar. For example, there’s a proposal to re-focus the Millennium Development Goals to include environmental issues and call them Sustainable Development Goals.

What seems certain is that where these events have traditionally been about heads of state talking to each other, this summit will reflect an increasing focus on the role of businesses and the importance of cities to a sustainable future.

I’ve already interviewed four people from Melbourne who will be attending the summit: a Green politician, a city employee and two people from NGOs. While it was interesting to hear their predictions, hopes and fears for the summit, it will be even more interesting to hear their reflections when I interview them again in six months’ time.

Will they be looking back on a successful summit? I honestly can’t say but I’d love to hear your prediction for Rio20+.