What Will Rio+20 Mean?

The Island of Petit St. Vincent, Grenada

As the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development ended last week, the hashtag #Riofail began to appear on Twitter posts. Activists were trashing the gathering of 50,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, including over 100 heads of state, for its failure to act on climate change, energy poverty, overfishing and a host of other problems.

Was Rio+20 a failure? The formal outcome is hardly a victory. Forty years ago, the first U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm produced a sweeping declaration of principles that set the environmental movement’s agenda. Twenty years later, the “Earth Summit” in Rio produced binding treaties on climate change and biodiversity, an agreement on forests and Agenda 21, a comprehensive set of commitments to sustainable development.

In contrast, Rio+20 produced a 53-page document entitled “The Future We Want,” which largely reaffirms earlier agreements, makes incremental adjustments to the U.N. bureaucracy and enshrines a vague commitment to a “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.” There are glimpses of what might become important agreements, such as new sustainable development goals, universal energy access and conservation of the high seas, but they are left to others to negotiate.

Brittany Trilford, a 17-year-old from New Zealand, captured the general sense of frustration when she addressed the delegates at their opening session: “I’m here to fight for my future. Are you here to hedge your bets, to save face, or to save us?”

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?

We won’t know the answer for years to come. But I saw a few hopeful signs in Rio:

First, nations rich and poor recognize that nature has value.

  • Since Stockholm, we’ve tried to balance the economy and the environment, as though human well-being and healthy nature are competing objectives. We conducted environmental diplomacy like arms control: figuring out how to get countries to do things for the good of the planet — like reducing greenhouse gas emissions — that weren’t in their immediate self-interest.
  • In Rio, we saw something else. Leaders of developing and developed nations stepped forward with commitments to conserve nature because it benefits their people. The Nature Conservancy was proud to support a gathering of Leaders Valuing Nature, where leaders of countries as diverse as Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Colombia, Grenada (pictured above), Indonesia, and Seychelles announced commitments to protect their oceans, coasts, rivers, and forests for food security, water supply, infrastructure and other economic and social goals. The World Bank organized a pledge by over fifty countries to include the value of “natural capital” in their national economic accounts.

Second, business has a stake in nature’s value.

  • One of the most striking differences between the Rio summits was the business community’s outlook. A handful of visionary companies came to Rio in 92 to encourage action, and almost as many came to block it. Since then, business has woken up to sustainability. Leaders like Walmart, GE, Dow, DuPont and Unilever have recognized that helping customers address environmental challenges is good business. As a result, hundreds of companies came to Rio this year.
  • While government delegates gathered glumly in the cavernous RioCentro to negotiate the official text, enthusiastic executives crowded hotel rooms and outdoor pavilions across the city to pursue sustainable business opportunities. The Nature Conservancy and the Corpoate EcoForum helped 24 companies with combined revenues of over $500 billion announce commitments to value and invest in nature, including brand leaders like Coca-Cola, Disney and Dow. Financial institutions released a Natural Capital Declaration to incorporate nature’s value in corporate accounting.

And finally, societies aren’t waiting for their governments to agree.

  • Perhaps the most encouraging signal from Rio was the turnout itself — nearly three times the number of people who attended the Earth Summit in 1992. Sustainability has become a truly global movement. Empowered by two decades of democratization and globalization, civil society is more powerful than ever.  NGOs are driving governments and businesses to act. Communities around the world are creating their own solutions to global environmental problems.

The Conservancy was proud to co-sponsor the Equator Prize, which celebrated 25 local initiatives to harness the value of nature for sustainable development. I had the honor of presenting one of the Prizes to a group of women artisans from Colombia, who weave plastic litter into beautiful bags and jewelry — and I was thrilled because my family uses one of their bags every week to carry our groceries in suburban Washington, DC. Such a powerful connection of citizens, commerce and sustainability across global borders wasn’t possible twenty years ago.

So the legacy of Rio+20 might be that governments, businesses and civil society finally realize that nature has value for people. Of course we’ve known this all along, but we haven’t set up the institutions and policies that govern our lives this way. Doing so would revolutionize the world for the better.

#Riofail? I don’t think so.

[Image: The Island of Petit St. Vincent, Grenada. The Conservancy is working with local partners to survey all of the Grenadines, identify threats and conservation strategies, and map priority sites in need of protection. Part of the plan includes developing and managing a system of marine protected areas. Image source: Marjo Aho]

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