Rio+20 Brought a “Spiritual Lift” Despite Disappointments

This Andy Goldsworthy sculpture enlivens the Aspen Institute. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

“I’ve been to a lot of international conferences, in Nagoya, Durban, and so on, but Rio [Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development] was bigger than any I’ve ever seen,” Matthew Shirts, the editor of the Brazilian edition of National Geographic, told a large audience at the Aspen Environment Forum this past weekend in Colorado.

Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, told the crowd, “I don’t think what comes out of that conference on paper matters as much as the spiritual lift that resulted.”

Echoing what she told National Geographic News last week, Earle called the conference June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro “Rio+20 minus 40.” She added, “That would take us back to Stockholm in 1972 [The UN Conference on the Human Environment].”

Earle said, “Sometimes I put up a picture of the Earth from space and say, ‘That’s the real World Bank, and we’re drawing it down.'” Earle noted that the Stockholm gathering was held just three years after the first walk on the moon, and only a few more after the first complete photo of the Earth from space, a transformative image that showed how fragile, and how blue, the planet appears.

Jason Clay, senior vice president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, had also come to Aspen just after Rio. He called the UN conference “a real mixed bag.” Clay said, “I was impressed with some things, but my impression of governments’ abilities to manage the planet has gone down…They were arguing over commas, and we needed more leadership.”

Clay pointed to several commitments by major companies as one positive development, including the fact that the Consumer Goods Forum pledged to have a net-zero deforestation footprint by 2020. That group includes such firms as Coca-Cola, Kraft, General Mills, Colgate, Johnson & Johnson, and more.

According to Sha Zukang, the Chinese diplomat who was the UN secretary-general of the Rio+20 summit, the nearly 700 side agreements forged at Rio carry a value around $513 billion.

Earle added, “There is good reason for companies to be doing these things because green is green.”

Still, Clay said global economic systems need to do a better job of accounting for negative environmental impacts of products and activities. “We have to figure out how to make it count when a tree falls that isn’t on someone’s ledger,” said Clay.

“Ignore the Official Stuff”

“The key to being happy with an event like this is to ignore the official stuff, don’t get credentialed, don’t expect anything from governments, and do things yourself,” Rohit Aggarwala joked to the group. Aggarwala, the special advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with C40 Cities, spent most of his time in Rio at the C40 pavilion, where he networked with other leaders of major cities to work on solving environmental problems at the local level.

Aggarwala explained that most major world cities have plans to address climate change, and C40 Cities is working to amplify those efforts. Aggarwala pointed out that many of the services that have a direct impact on the environment are actually handled at the local level, such as building codes, zoning, waste removal, street planning, and so on. He added that mayors usually don’t have to contend with agriculture or other dominant industries.

Aggarwala added that mayors tend to be pragmatic and that they often don’t wait for other cities around the world to take action before they jump in. Aggarwala quoted former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1934 to 1945), who said, “There is no Democrat or Republican way to collect garbage.”

Aggarwala pointed out that many proposed increases in local taxes pass, although tax hikes at the national level tend to be unpopular. “We don’t trust Congress to redistribute the money,” he said.

He added that national policy often builds on what is accomplished first at the city level. As an example, he said the national highway system wasn’t backed by federal law until 1957, after several states had already crisscrossed their territories with pavement. “By starting with cities and companies, we lay the groundwork, otherwise it is like picking up the big end of a wedge,” said Aggarwala.

Perhaps the same thing could be said about Rio+20 overall.

Check out this video interview with Sylvia Earle at the Aspen Environment Forum, produced by

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Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for,,, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power

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