In a surprise announcement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has just appointed Prime Minister Julia Gillard as co-chair of the a body set up to accelerate progress on the millenium development goals in the years remaining before 2015.

But with Gillard having just cut the aid budget through delaying Australia’s commitment to spend 0.5% of GDP foreign aid, is this a genuine commitment or just a play to get Australia a seat on the Security Council?

“Actions speak louder than words” is becoming the theme of frustrated civil society representatives here. Lofty words aren’t short on the ground, but commitments to new actions are scarce.

“At its simplest, sustainable development means having a decent standard of living, but also making sure that we are not compromising the standard of living or the natural environment of our children and the generations to come,” Gillard told the small crowd of Australian media assembled at the Riocentro Convention Centre a few hours ago.

It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not reflected in the substance of the document the PM has come to Rio to sign. And it sounds like even Gillard knows it.

“I am not pretending that the outcomes here are going to make a huge difference from tomorrow on,” she said.

Questions are being raised here about why the final text is so lacking in ambition, commitments, timeframes and anything of substance that could hold governments to account.

New Zealander Brittany Trilford, 17, is concerned that the treaty the world leaders have come here to sign is worth less than the paper it’s written on. In an impassioned speech to the opening plenary of the official talks this morning, she asked world leaders a simple question: “Are you here to save face, or to save us?”

The skies over usually sunny Rio were overcast today, and the mood among among environmentalists in the conference centre is as dark as the clouds.

The World Wildlife Fund called the text “a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats” and is calling on heads of state to add ambition and real commitments to the agreement. “If they approve what’s on the table now without significant changes, they’ve doomed Rio+20 to ridicule.”

It’s a call echoed by Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who is also in Rio. “We’re calling on the Prime Minister to insist on re-opening the text because it’s simply too weak,” she told Crikey. “We need some new commitments with implementation timeframes, rather than just this self-congratulatory talking of the talk”.

The pledges in the current text do not come close to what scientists say the world must do in order to avoid crossing planetary boundaries that could tip the world into a new environmental state.

Despite the controversy, the Australian delegation cancelled today’s regular daily briefing with a short email. Since there had been no change since yesterday, they said, there would be no briefing today. This didn’t made the Australian NGOs very happy. “Just because they felt they had nothing to say to us doesn’t meant they should stop the opportunity for us to question them,” said one disgruntled Australian academic here to follow the negotiations.

But the delegation was out in force for the official Australian side event, the launch of an indigenous rangers program. Environment Minister Tony Burke was home in Australia, but New Zealand’s environment minister gave a speech praising the initiative for encouraging co-operation in indigenous land and sea management.

Afterwards, at a doorstop, the Prime Minister talked of her intention to support “comprehensive sustainable development goals for all countries”.

She also said she had come to Rio to support work on ocean protection, despite the Oceans Rescue Plan for the High Seas having been cut from the final negotiating text after heavy lobbying from the US, Canada, Russia and Venezuela. “They want to mine the seas for private profit with impunity and exploit the resources that belong to all humanity,” said Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo of the move.

After the doorstop, the Prime Minister was whisked to a joint press conference with Ban Ki-moon to announce her appointment to co-chair the body set up to determine how the world will meet the MDGs in the years remaining before the 2015 deadline. Speaking next to the Prime Minister, the UN Secretary-General spoke of the urgency and importance of doing everything possible to meet the goals.

Urgency is a word lacking in the formal negotiating text, though. Last night this point was hammered home after spending some time with Severn Cullis-Suzuki, made famous by her speech at the original Earth Summit where she became known as “the girl who stopped the world for six minutes”.

She was 12 years old  when her speech brought many delegates to tears. Then-Senator Al Gore was in the room and one of the first to come up and congratulate her.

Now, Suzuki-Cullis is 32 and a mother to two young boys. “Twenty years after Rio, we have not even come close to achieving the sustainable transition that we knew we needed back then,” Cullis-Suzuki told me. “Now, we need nothing short of a massive paradigm shift if the human race is to carry forward into the future with dignity.”