Reflections on Rio: Encouraging Cloud Over the Earth Summit

Since returning from Rio, I have already participated in a number of debriefings about the Rio+20 Earth Summit. I am pleased to see the interest, but dismayed to find many people have already accepted the message that the Summit had been a “flop” or a “failure.” Focused on the conference’s uninspired “outcome document,” most observers overlooked the major shift and real progress that took place there. 

In terms of short-term politics and traditional benchmarks, Rio+20 could easily be seen as a bust. The top leaders of the U.S., U.K., and Germany did not bother to show. There were no treaties signed nor were there any major new agencies or funds created. However, the prime ministers and presidents of China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and almost 90 other nations did come to Rio, along with thousands of governors, mayors, and other officials; CEOs, business leaders, and entrepreneurs; experts, advocates and activists. In all, there were more than 50,000 people participating in more than 3,000 side events and millions more around the world connected electronically. I agree with UN Ban Ki-Moon’s statement: "In Rio we saw the further evolution of an undeniable global movement for change." 

No one was happy with the official outcome document which had been negotiated over the last nine months and finalized just before the start of the Summit. Determined to avoid another Copenhagen, the diplomats wanted above all to be able to present a completed agreement to their national leaders when they arrived in Rio. We do share the concerns of many others about the resulting lack of ambition in the document. However, as we have repeatedly stated, the international community does not need another treaty or agenda. There are already hundreds of unfilled international environmental sustainability goals. What really mattered in Rio were the hundreds of "non-globally-negotiated" specific commitments made by countries, communities, and corporations to take action now.  

In Rio, leaders recommitted to what they were already doing and pledged to do more. The UN estimated that there were several hundred promises worth more than 500 billion dollars. On NRDC's "Cloud of Commitments" website, we have aggregated more than 200 of the most significant from key Rio+20 commitment registries and platforms. A number of the commitments could lead to trillions of dollars of new investments in sustainable energy, transportation, and green urban infrastructure. Other pledges are difficult to put a dollar value on, such as the pledge by 400 of the world’s largest companies, joined by the US Government, to make their supply chains deforestation free by 2020 or the promise by the Australian Prime Minister to double the size of their marine parks.

Just a few days before the start of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, Professor Elinor Ostrom, a nobel laureate in economics and a leading thinker on managing natural resources, passed away. In her last article, Professor Ostrom wrote

Much is riding on the United Nations Rio+20 summit. Many are billing it as Plan A for Planet Earth and want leaders bound to a single international agreement to protect our life-support system and prevent a global humanitarian crisis.

Inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.

We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society. No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.

In Rio, we saw progress towards the more flexible, nimble system envisioned by Professor Ostrom where leaders at every level take action. We created the Cloud to encourage and support these commitments. We want the Cloud to help the world see this new path and empower individuals to help hold our leaders accountable for their Rio promises.   

There is no question that these pledges may seem small when held against the huge planetary challenges we face. But they are concrete, specific steps that will actually get us moving faster towards a low-carbon sustainable economy. With public engagement and pressure, they could quickly add up to the changes we need to get the future we want for ourselves and our children.

Here are links to some other voices giving the bigger picture of what happened in Rio:

Ken Weiss, Los Angeles Times

To some of those present, the conference presented a new model, a global gathering to inspire government and corporate leaders and others to move ahead and build momentum — rather than waiting for world leaders to reach consensus on a treaty to address climate change or other environmental matters.

"We cannot be boxed in by the orthodoxies of the past," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a speech to delegates of more than 190 nations. "We need fresh, agile, action-oriented partnerships that can produce results year after year after year."

Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund 

Think of Rio+20 as cinema. In its simplest black and white, small screen format, it was unsatisfying. Government negotiators failed to reach any agreements of note. But, in color, on the large screen, with your 3D glasses on, it was much more.

Andrew Deutz, Nature Conservancy

At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there was a simple grand bargain: the poor countries would clean up if the rich countries would pay up. This was all codified in a series of treaties, declarations, and aid deals. Rio+20 doesn't have a grand bargain – in part because the simple, two-sided world of rich countries and poor countries doesn't exist anymore, and in part because many of the key players don't actually need a global deal. 

Roger Platt, U.S. Green Building Council 

Trying to solve the world's most pressing and ubiquitous environmental problems by convening the very governments stuck in gridlock the last 20 years was never going to be a silver-bullet solution. An old-school UN conference with representatives of 193 countries negotiating a "consensus" agreement is no longer the ideal medium for change. In some respects, the medium was the message.

Glenn Prickett, Nature Conservancy

 But summits like Rio+20 are about more than negotiated outcomes. They inspire a new generation of leaders. They embed new concepts. They set agendas. They leave a legacy that can’t be defined neatly as “success” or “failure.” Stockholm launched the global environmental movement. Rio 92 enshrined the concept of sustainable development. What will be the legacy of Rio+20? 

Editorial, Concord (N.H.) Monitor 

We doubt that more than a handful of the 50,000 Rio attendees expected any grand accords to be reached. We certainly didn't. Recognizing that, the Natural Resources Defense Council began creating a tool that could lead to building cooperation block by block. It is one of the most heartening accomplishments to come out of the Rio conference. 

James Fahn, The Observatory Blog, Columbia Journalism Review

 But the media, and civil society in general, might be focusing on the wrong results. Several veteran observers like former Senator Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation, and Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) say the talks were bound to disappoint. The interesting, and perhaps more newsworthy, parts of the summit were to be found away from the negotiations, in side events where NGOs, businesses and other groups gathered to present, discuss, and plan concrete actions to achieve greener growth.

Also posted at NRDC's