Official Rio Document Disappoints, but People's Commitment to Sustainability Inspires

When 17-year-old student Brittany Trilford addressed the opening session of the Rio Earth Summit on Wednesday, she urged world leaders to take concrete action to protect the planet.

“I stand here with fire in my heart,” she said. “I’m confused and angry at the state of the world, and I want us to work together now to change this. We are here today to solve the problems that we have caused as a collective, to ensure that we have a future.”

The official document the leaders signed at the end of the conference three days later failed to live up to Brittany’s eloquent charge. It showed an astonishing lack of ambition given the magnitude of the challenges before us.

But the energy pulsing through Brittany’s speech reflected the singular success of the summit: the incredible, passionate, and dedicated focus of 50,000 people coming together to restore the planet.

It could be easy to call the Rio Earth Summit a failure, especially based on the official document alone. But as I said in a New York Times op-ed I wrote with Trip Van Noppen, the lesson from Rio is that people aren’t waiting for a document to tell us how to fight climate change or revive the oceans. We are already doing it, and Rio gave a chance to share, celebrate, and expand on those solutions.

In addition to the 50,000 people present in Rio, hundreds of thousands more participated virtually to make their voices heard like never before. Countries, communities and companies worldwide announced hundreds of individual commitments to instigate real change—regardless of any United Nations document.

A group of development banks, for instance, pledged to give $175 billion to support public transit and bike lands instead of highway construction in the world’s biggest urban centers—an initiative that will combat climate change and reduce toxic air pollution that causes cancer and heart disease.

Fourteen nations announced they were joining an international effort to phase out inefficient incandescent light bulbs by 2016. A transition to efficient lighting could result in annual global saving of more than $110 billion and reduce carbon pollution equal to taking more than 120 million cars off the road. 

The United States said it would join several other countries to launch an international effort to monitor the growing acidification in the world’s oceans brought on by fossil fuel emissions. And 32 groups from government, business, and civil society signed on to NRDC’s Global Goal and Commitment to Stop Plastic Pollution in the world’s oceans.

These are just some of the real, concrete commitments made in Rio. You can view them all NRDC’s new website And you can track their progress—and hold leaders accountable—in the coming months.

The official document, meanwhile, is not likely to spark many on-the-ground changes. It doesn’t call for binding cuts in carbon pollution or set standards for expanding clean energy. It doesn’t help achieve an international treaty to protect ocean biodiversity. And it backslides considerably on the need to make reproductive health care accessible to women around the world—something I found particularly distressing.

The document reminds us that we can’t rely only on the slow wheels of bureaucracy and government negotiators to address the urgent problems facing our planet. We must start doing it ourselves, and Rio proved that we are.