Rio+20: Yes, Important Progress Made

By Rona Fried

The lofty purpose of the Rio+20 Earth Summit was to “establish an institutional framework for sustainable development and to establish a green economy.. While not legally binding, the document that emerges from Rio+20 will serve as a roadmap for sustainable development.”

With that kind of set up, the conference couldn’t help but disappoint – let’s solve the world’s problems with this one simple text that 180 countries will be happy to sign onto!

Still, delegates managed to approve a 49-page document, “The Future We Want, ” which reaffirms much of the text from the same conference 20 years ago. In fact, the word “reaffirm” appears 59 times in the text! Complaints from the NGO community are its wishy washy language, lack of specifics, timetables or deadlines. Greenpeace calls it a “failure of epic proportions,” while the Pew Environment Group says, “It would be a mistake to call Rio a failure, but for a once-in-a-decade meeting with so much at stake, it was a far cry from a success.”

Here’s an excerpt from the text:

“We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature.”

“The declaration has no figures, dates and targets. It is as stuffed with meaningless platitudes as an advertisement for payday loans. There is nothing to work with here, no program, no sense of urgency or call for concrete action beyond the inadequate measures already agreed in previous flaccid declarations. Its tone and contents would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to a complex of escalating global crises. The 283 paragraphs of fluff suggests that 190 governments have, in effect, given up on multilateralism, given up on the world and given up on us,” says George Monbiot, author and columnist for The Guardian.

Mark Halle, Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development- Europe says: “The first conclusion we must reach is that we should call a moratorium on all global, multilateral negotiations and begin to address the thousands of unfulfilled promises and commitments we have made. To do so would build momentum of success that would once again instill hope and belief among our populations.

“The second conclusion is that our intergovernmental structures are tired, lack vision and courage, and are increasingly left behind by the natural momentum of creativity and innovation in our societies. Worse still, there can no longer be any doubt that they are to all intents and purposes unreformable.

“So, on the one hand, we have a government-based process that is hopelessly stuck in the mud. On the other we have a mass of energy, creativity and strength that is not only committed to action but raring to go if only we can find the forms and channels to harness it. This, surely, is the creative field of endeavour for the future.” Here’s his full commentary.

What Went Wrong?

Indeed, the set up for the conference may have been a key reason for its downfall. Halle says:

“When, two years ago, the UN decided to hold this conference, there was no particular reason for it except that the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Summit was looming. There were plenty of general reasons, including the fact that most of the decisions taken in 1992 have been ignored, most of the agreed actions never taken, and the planet has continued to decline. But nothing suggested the necessary political will could be mustered to take transformative steps, to agree on game-changing resolutions, or even to stimulate implementation of the myriad decisions, resolutions and undertakings that were made in Rio in 1992 or in the two decades since.”

People pinned their hopes on the sheer mass of talent that would be one place at one time, but “mass is no longer majesty, and large conferences, far from generating momentum, have, in the words of one commentator, become “too big to succeed,” says Halle.

Apparently, the preparatory process was flawed. Groups of governments camped firmly on their positions; the UN secretariat offered no vision and little mobilizing power and failed to generate the funding needed to put together a proper team. And the host country, Brazil, never gave the sense that this conference was a high political priority.

Despite adding extra negotiating sessions, only about a seventh of the draft outcome document was agreed before delegates arrived. Negotiations couldn’t be completed before Heads of State arrived, so Brazilians pulled a text from their back pockets and offered it on a “take it or leave it” basis to the stunned delegates, Halle says.

Besides repeated reaffirmations from the 1992 Rio text, it documents priorities without any targets or specifics; energy, water, oceans, cities, food security, sustainable consumption, economic development and institutional design.

It’s time for a different approach.


Time for a Different Approach

One has to ask if the goal of a Summit like this should be focused on one text. Besides Rio+, the results have been pretty much the same at Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen.

It could be time for a different approach, which seems to be happening concurrently anyway.

“A document doesn’t save the planet; what saves the planet is real action,” says Jake Schmidt, director of international climate policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Rio can’t be about the text. It’s got to be about the commitments and the rallying cry that’s coming from the public.,” he told Bloomberg.

Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla points to monitoring the growth of individual pledges as more important than the summit’s official agreement, and countries that are willing to do more should push forward in smaller alliances on issues like reducing deforestation.

NRDC counts separate commitments worth $513 billion on its new website, Cloud of Commitments, which tracks them.

The NY Times says, “The outcome reflects big power shifts around the world. These include a new assertiveness by developing nations in international forums and the growing capacity of grass-roots organizations and corporations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments.”

Indeed, at the side sessions, hundreds of agreements and projects were announced .. which don’t require government involvement.

Andre Correa do Lago, chief negotiator for Brazil, told Reuters: “This summit recognizes more than the others that not one size fits all.” Many government leaders from developing countries used their time at the podium to talk about the panoply of needs they are struggling with, especially compared with the developed world. While Brazil, China and other big emerging nations reiterated their need to catch up with rich countries, others like Bolivia, Iran and Cuba unleashed traditional rants against capitalism and conventional definitions of growth.”

Many developing countries continued pushing for a global fund that helps them pursue sustainable development, but the prospect of a $30 billion fund was dropped even before the Summit began. There was also a proposal from France to tax financial transactions to build the fund, but that also failed to gain traction.

Announcements/Commitments at Rio+20

Governments made 692 individual commitments and companies made 517 commitments at last count. 57% relate to energy, followed by water (18%), cities (10%) and oceans (5%). Pledges include at least 243 programs related to sustainability education and projects at universities across the world.

“These huge numbers give a sense of the scale and growth of investment going into sustainable development,” says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “They are part of a growing global movement for change. Our job now is to create a critical mass, an irresistible momentum.”

Over 50 governments are launching energy strategies, under his “Sustainable Energy For All” initiative, whose goal is to double the share of global renewable energy and the rate of energy efficiency improvement by 2030, while ensuring universal access to renewable energy. Annual investment will have to rise from the current level of $1.3 trillion to $1.8 trillion, says a HSBC analyst in a research note.

While government negotiators “haggle over a dwindling pool of traditional aid, the private sector is scaling up trillions of investment dollars a year for clean and accessible energy,” says HSBC. “This Initiative is an example of a new way of working for the UN, using its convening power to identify critical bottlenecks to renewables, efficiency and universal access, and then designing focused packages of policy incentives, public finance and private capital.”

The following are examples of commitments from governments and companies.

Brazil will invest $4.3 billion to achieve universal energy access by 2014 and announced the creation of Rio+ Centre, the World Centre for Sustainable Development. Its purpose is to facilitate research, knowledge exchange and promote international debate about sustainable development among all levels of government, the UN, NGOs, universities, think-tanks and the private sector.

Japan will provide $3 billion in aid to developing countries in the next three years to help them transition to a green economy,

The United States pledged $2 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees, as well as public-private energy technology to support “Sustainable Energy For All,” including $20 million in grants to business owners in Africa for clean energy projects.. The partnership, which includes the US State Department, the Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, will leverage hundreds of millions in private financing to “make clean energy and energy security cornerstones of our foreign policy,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This will help unleash the large potential for renewable energy that exists in Africa, says Jake Schmidt of NRDC. “It expands OPIC investment into a continent in desperate need of renewable energy to help address energy poverty and the growing energy needs in key African countries.”


The UK announced that all companies listed on London Stock Exchange will be required to report on their annual greenhouse gas emissions starting next year. And it will invest $234 million to help 6 million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa adapt farming practices to a changing climate.

The Maldives will create the world’s largest marine reserve, encompassing all 1,192 of its islands by 2017.

Barbados will increase renewable energy to 29% of its electricity consumption by 2030.

Grenada pledged to have 100% green transportation and electricity by 2030.

Mexico pledged to protect the Cabo Pulmo National Park from development, one of the world’s great coral reefs which is threatened by tourism development.

The World Bank will double the leveraging of its clean energy lending to $16 billion a year, focusing on initiatives such as renewable energy and clean cookstoves.

Eight multilateral banks announced they would fund $175 billion in loans and grants for sustainable transportation projects in developing countries over the next 10 years.

Megacities pledged as part of the C40 Climate Leadership Group to cut methane emissions from landfills and to develop a web library on what the world’s cities are doing about climate change – and tools and resources cities can use to further their work.

Company Commitments

The Consumer Goods Forum committed to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020, particularly in commodities like soy, palm oil, paper and beef, which are responsible for half of the world’s deforestation. The Forum represents more than 400 well-known companies with combined annual revenues of over $3.1 trillion, such as 3M, Clorox, Coca-Cola and General Mills. The US government committed to support their effort and will co-host a high-level Partnership Dialogue in Washington DC within 100 days.

24 major corporations signed on to the Valuing Natural Capital initiative to develop an ecological accounting model that includes the value of the world’s forests, freshwater and marine systems in all business economics.

25 companies from the insurance industry, worth over $5 trillion in assets and representing over 10% of world premiums, will promote the Principles for Sustainable Insurance with a goal to offer risk management tools that support environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Sir Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room will work with Aruba to transition the island to 100% renewable energy and the world’s first sustainable economy.

French utility GDF Suez will invest in 50 local energy projects in developing countries by 2020 and boost its own renewable energy capacity 50% by 2015.

Italian utility Eni has earmarked $5 billion to reduce its carbon intensity and spend $32 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo to capture gas from oil flaring.

Richard Branson says in an interview with Bloomberg, after signing onto banning oil drilling in the Arctic, “The role of companies is all the more important for the world because so little has come out of governments. Governments could have made some big announcements this week that wouldn’t have cost their countries any money — that could have made their companies money. They could have got rid of the subsidy on fossil fuels, which would have helped start a complete clean industry and given it the massive boost it needed and save their countries money. They chose not to do that. They could have agreed to protect the open seas and police the open seas instead of letting them carry on getting decimated by fishing and so on. So companies have really got to step in and do the best they can without the proper ground rules set by governments.”

“Behind the scenes there are lots of fantastic initiatives, but there’s one big thing that every governments could do — get rid of fossil fuel subsidies. The fossil fuel industry is making tons of money. It’s not going to harm them very much and it would be the one move which could get the whole world back on track.”

Natural Capitalism

Although there’s a split on the value of natural capitalism that I referred to earlier, many people see this move as a breakthrough, including us.

Ecological economists have been saying for decades that government measures of GDP (Gross National Product) are flawed – they fail to show the true cost of activities. What’s known as “externalities” in financial accounting are critical to protecting earth’s natural systems. If the health and environmental costs of coal were included in the price, for example, renewable energy would immediately be much cheaper than coal. .

57 countries, the European Commisson and 86 private companies – including Wal-Mart, Unilever and many of the world’s biggest corporations – agreed to create natural capital accounting rules that integrate the value of natural assets like clean air, clean water, forests and ecosystems into business decisions. Countries that signed on include the US, Britain, France and Germany, but not China or Brazil.

Some have already endorsed the Natural Capital Declaration and the Natural Capital Leadership Compact.


A study of 11 industries by global accounting firm KPMG found that external environmental costs have jumped 50%, from $566 billion to $846 billion between 2002-2010. That works out to a doubling of these costs every 14 years.

All the ingredients are in place to implement natural capital accounting, including a UN-recognized methodology, political commitment at the highest levels and strong private sector support, Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president for Sustainable Development, told Bloomberg.

Thanks partly to progress made at Rio+20, corporate and government accounting with likely reflect environmental profit and loss within a decade, replacing GDP.

The top 3000 companies don’t account for $2.1 trillion in charges related to the use or pollution of natural assets, such as releasing carbon dioxide into the air or waste into a river, Pavan Sukhdev, a board member of Conservation International and former Deutsche Bank AG banker, told Reuters. That figure nearly doubles to $4 trillion, or about 6.7% of global GDP, when the world’s entire corporate sector is included, he says.

“We cannot continue to do business thinking we are adding value to shareholders while at the same time destroying value for stakeholders,” Sukhdev said. “This is bad management.”

The UK announcement that all companies listed on London Stock Exchange will be required to report on their annual greenhouse gas emissions starting next year, is also huge and piggybacks on natural accounting. Common standards for the world’s companies are likely to be ready in 3-5 years, with implementation across the world’s stock exchanges in about 7 years.


The Code REDD Campaign launched with the commitment of five corporate champions including multinational financial services provider Allianz SE, global luxury sport & lifestyle premium brands giant PPR, Dutch sustainable energy utility Eneco, German renewable energy provider Entega, and the leading South African bank, Nedbank.

Entega pledged to support a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, PPR will support a Kenya project, and Eneco will support the Surui Project in Brazil.

Code REDD is an emergency action campaign designed to motivate corporate leaders to save the threatened forests of the world, by dramatically increasing the demand for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) emission reductions.

Founded by Wildlife Works, a leading REDD+ project development and management company, it’s an open initiative that brings together corporate emissions reductions buyers, REDD+ project developers, indigenous forest owners, forest nation governments, NGOs, verification organizations, standards bodies, market platforms and other concerned entities to develop and finance high quality REDD+ projects.

Code REDD provides a solution to two of the most pressing issues of our time:

  1. How to stop the deforestation that is stripping the planet of its biodiversity, impoverishing forest communities and releasing massive amounts of pollution that are changing our climate forever.
  2. How to allow the marketplace to continue to provide energy goods and services to our growing global population without accelerating the negative impacts on our climate.

Code REDD enables corporations to reduce their effective carbon footprint by buying Verified Emissions Reductions from high quality REDD projects that stop deforestation, protect biodiversity, and create unprecedented sustainable development for forest communities.

Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR)

ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) joined with six major organizations to build more resilient communities: C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the World Bank, Eye on Earth Summit, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro.

“Building more resilient communities and regions in the US and around the world is critical for our future,” says Michael Schmitz, Executive Director of ICLEI USA. “Over the past several years our communities have endured economic recession, rising energy costs, and extreme weather events that have cost us billions. We need to prepare for these ongoing challenges and build communities that can bounce back and remain strong. This initiative will help mobilize the leadership and innovation of local governments and key stakeholders to achieve that goal.”.


You can track all the pledges – and whether they are fulfilled – at NRDC’s Commitments are searchable by sector, keyword or region.

UN’s Compilation of Voluntary Commitments

Reuters Fact Box on Rio+20

Rona Fried, Ph.D. is CEO of and chooses the stocks for the Nasdaq series of Green Economy Indexes.

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