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Rio+20

The United Nations conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), which marked the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, was held in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22, 2012.  With over 40,000 attendees and participation from 191 nations and observers, including 79 heads of states or governments, it was the largest conference ever hosted by the United Nations. 

The United States delegation was led by Secretary of State Clinton and was composed of over 40 delegates, including U.S. mayors and county officials (for example, Oakland and North Little Rock), NGO and private sector representatives (for example, National Research Defense Council and the U.S. Council for International Business) and delegates from 12 U.S. government agencies such as the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency (led by Administrator Jackson), U.S. Agency for International Development and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The USDA was represented by Elise Golan, Director of Sustainable Development, Office of the Chief Economist; Greg Crosby, National Program Leader, Sustainable Development, Institute of Bioenergy, Climate, and Environment, National Institute of Food and Agriculture; and for the Global Bioenergy Partnership events, Gerald Ostheimer, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, International Affairs Specialist, Office of Global Analysis Foreign Agriculture Service. 

In many ways, Rio+20 marked the emergence of a different kind of U.N. conference.  In particular, at Rio+20, equal, if not greater, attention was afforded to the activities and commitments of partnerships and civil society, than to those of governments and the government-negotiated outcome document.  This focus was reflected in the over 3,000 side events that took place in the days leading up to and during the conference.  In addition, in the four days prior to the conference, representatives from civil society convened to formulate recommendations related to sustainable development—the top three of which were conveyed directly to the heads of state and government at the conference.  Most significantly, the conference resulted in hundreds of non-negotiated voluntary commitments in support of sustainable development, such as new sustainable development projects or initiatives, changes in business practices, policy advocacy, or public education.  By the end of the conference, over 700 commitments, estimated to be worth over $500 billion were posted on the U.N. website, while those aggregated on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Cloud of Commitments” website are expected to lead to “trillions of dollars of new investments in sustainable energy, transportation, and green urban infrastructure” (Jacob Scherr, Director, Global Strategy and Advocacy, 2012 switchboard.nrdc.org/earthsummit.php). 

The fresh wind at Rio+20—and the need for a new kind of action-oriented world engagement on sustainable development—was also stressed by Secretary of State Clinton in her remarks at the conference

We cannot be boxed in by the orthodoxies of the past. We should and must make decisions based on research and scientific evidence about what works. And above all, we need fresh, agile, action-oriented partnerships that can produce results year after year after year.  So while the outcome document adopted here contains many important principles and proposals, the most compelling products of this conference are the examples of new thinking that can lead to models for future action. It should be said of Rio that people left here thinking, as the late Steve Jobs put it, not just big, but different.