Skip to main content

Rio+20: Impacts and Ways Forward

On Wednesday September 12, the "Managing Our Planet" series continues with a look back at the Rio+20 Conference.

Date & Time

Sep. 12, 2012
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions


On September 12th, the Brazil Institute and the Environmental Change and Security Program in partnership with George Mason University hosted a panel, “Rio+20: Impacts and Ways Forward”, to review and reflect on the outcomes of the Rio+20 Summit hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 2012. To commence the event, Director of the Brazil Institute, Paulo Sotero, welcomed guests and provided a brief introduction for the discussion to follow. Panelists included Fred Boltz, Senior Vice President for International Policy at Conservation International; Jacob Scherr, Director of Global Strategy and Advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council; Michelle Lapinski, Director of Corporate Practices at The Nature Conservancy; and Reid Detchon, Vice President for Energy and Climate of the United Nations Foundation. Dann Sklarew, Associate Director of the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center at George Mason University, moderated the event.

Fred Boltz launched the panel discussion by challenging the wide-spread sentiment, felt by participants and observers, that the Rio+20 Summit was a failure. Boltz explained that aspirations for the conference were low and that “…many left deflated and frustrated…” as a result of unrealistic expectations conjured from the 1992 Earth Summit. However, Boltz emphasized that realistically expected outcomes were met and possibly exceeded; outlining parties’ agreement and acknowledgment of existing commitments, initiatives and frameworks instead of creating new ones. Boltz stressed that “…we are not acting with required urgency, necessary scale or with appropriate courage and commitment…” to save our planet. Highlights of the summit, according to Boltz, included side events where corporate, governmental and civil society leaders met and discussed these issues. Looking forward, Boltz asserted the turning point in this process will materialize when strengths and limitations of governing bodies are recognized and they acknowledge that the future we all desire must be guided by a common understanding of goals, acceptance of thresholds of change and urgent timelines; all providing a basis for cooperation and voluntary action. He hopes that the global community collectively chooses to not allow the desire for ideal political outcomes to prevent progress in action, since the future we want depends on urgent, smart, collective action with all nations and individuals partaking. Fred Boltz eloquently set the stage that would have subsequent speakers echo his message.

Jacob Scherr started off by sharing some of his past experience with climate change summits and conferences. Recalling the summit as an extraordinary gathering, Scherr also noted his disappointment in the lack of international public attention the conference received in comparison to the 1992 summit. Outlining actions made at the conference, Scherr asserted that the summit’s focus should have been implementation and holding leaders accountable for their commitments. Agreeing with Boltz, Scherr said he was dismayed by snap judgments made about conference outcomes before the event had concluded and thought observers focused too much on the rather uninspired and disliked final formal document, overlooking other progress that was made. Scherr acknowledged Brazil’s emerging role on the world stage, especially following the summit, and congratulated their success in organizing such an important event. However, Scherr regretfully noted that widespread denial among world leaders regarding the urgency of global environmental challenges were still vastly apparent, affirming their priorities are beset by economic problems. Further noting the concern that people are conditioned to think there is one simple solution, Scherr was pleased that the summit created many platforms, registries and initiatives toward environmental sustainability. Looking ahead, Scherr emphasized the need for civil society organizations that will hold bodies accountable for commitments made during the summit.

Speaking from the private sector perspective, Michelle Lapinski criticized the segregation between sectors at Rio+20. She started by calling attention to the need for more collaboration and the adoption of clear regulatory frameworks between corporations and governments. Taking into account previous efforts, Lapinski said she was pleased by the tremendous business turnout in Rio and their collective acknowledgment of the serious risk environmental degradation poses. Lapinski stressed the need for corporations to take immediate action independent of governments now that they have taken responsibility for their own environmental impacts. Aware that governments are turning inwards due to financial crises, she noted the private sector’s power to take action and become primary investors and solution providers for environmental sustainability and development. Despite their potential, Lapinski emphasized the need to scale up collective efforts by starting at the local level, calling attention to the vital role of social entrepreneurs in implementing solutions. Lapinski asserted the importance of natural capital given corporations have felt the immediate effects of natural resource degradation and urged companies to evaluate their investments, change accounting standards and commit to long term environmental protection. The Natural Capital Declaration becomes crucial in Lapinski’s evaluation, since a growing number of corporations are making commitments to value the document. Overall, Lapinski was optimistic that the private sector’s role would become vital in implementing initiatives toward sustainable development.

Gearing the panel discussion toward youth in the audience, Reid Detchon asked the question, “What does all of this mean for your futures?” Detchon emphasized the importance of the youth’s ability to create the political will to act through “bite sized chunks”, reaffirming that engaging the youth in these initiatives is the basis for voluntary action and the only way to hold leaders accountable. He proceeded to point out that less developed countries don’t want to be constrained from developing by having to act on the “western idea” of sustainable development. According to Detchon, it is difficult to create the political will to act when these countries have yet to have sustainable energy. He stresses further that sustainable development is fueled by the sustainable use of energy and reminded the audience, as Lapinski previously noted, that these initiatives will be driven by private sector funding instead of traditional foreign aid. The key to ensuring investment is through dialogue between the public and private sectors, and civil society. Detchon stated that half a trillion dollars have been committed to these initiatives, all credited to public-private partnerships. Other than continuing the sustainable energy goal, Detchon asserted the need to honor commitments, encourage private investments and build trust with developing countries in order to continue these initiatives. He concluded by pointing out the World Bank and UN’s cooperation at the summit, indicating collaboration on sustainable development initiatives are looking up.  

At the end of the panel, audience members were quick to point out the overly optimistic sentiments expressed by the speakers; declaring their analyses starkly contrasting many people’s opinions and urging more skepticism regarding the legitimacy of the progress made. Marcia Cota of Conservation International responded to the audience by stating that there is no miracle solution to these issues. Therefore, we shouldn’t await new bodies to convene with better solutions. All speakers came to a consensus that implementation after the summit entails action by all organizations and individuals, not just governments.

Drafted by Natalie Russell,Edited by Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute

Photos courtesy of: CGIAR Climate and Blog do Planalto


Hosted By

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.