06/28/2012 12:45 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

Reflections on Rio+20: Who Are These New Environmentalists Undaunted by Political Gridlock?

(Hint: They are Not Beholden to Governments for Their Success)

I read the Times today (oh boy), the status quo's army had (just) won the war over the dreamers and visionaries of the 20th Century environmental movement. The statements of defeat by Greenpeace (who called the conference "a failure of epic proportions") or CARE (who called the conference "nothing more than a political charade") were straight-forward. The statements of outrage from other global players were equally shrill and severe.

And all this hand-wringing and finger-pointing would have been overwhelmingly disheartening had it not been so predictable. In many respects, the 283-paragraph "text" coming out of the Rio+20 Conference was a mission statement, not a negotiated treaty. If the expectation for Rio+20 was to produce a command and control path forward for saving the environment, it was doomed before it was even negotiated.

Trying to solve the world's most pressing and ubiquitous environmental problems by convening the very governments stuck in gridlock the last 20 years was never going to be a silver-bullet solution. An old-school UN conference with representatives of 193 countries negotiating a "consensus" agreement is no longer the ideal medium for change. In some respects, the medium was the message.

The preeminent challenge faced by those attending the Rio conference -- how to maintain economic growth and at the same time protect the environment -- was arguably too important to leave to politicians. Indeed, in Rio (or in the United States for that matter) most of them are not yet convinced (or perhaps convincing) that that goal is remotely realistic.

And yet, if you read more closely in both the Times coverage and that of other mainstream media, the larger story is much more significant and encouraging. It turns out there are individuals and organizations (including corporations) that do believe they can make a measurable difference just when the world is most in need of positive action and commitment. Coupled with appropriately robust monitoring and verification, some examples of highly encouraging commitments made at the conference include:

  • Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP

  • A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world's largest cities.

  • The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Ministry for the environment announced a sophisticated online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.

  • Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy, worked with the countries of Indonesia, Australia and Colombia to ensure they all made strong commitments to protecting oceans within their national waters. TNC got them to act not by exhorting them to "save the planet" but instead by pragmatically getting them to see the value of ocean protection measures as a way to ensure the future food security of their citizens.

  • The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.
  • Buried further in the Times coverage is the absolutely accurate conclusion that the conference demonstrated "the growing capacity of grass-roots organizations and corporations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments." The Earth Summit of 1992 delivered to the world something invaluable: a rallying cry for all of us to act. So many of us on the ground are doing that and we came together again at Rio+20 to renew our resolve -- with or without global government commitments.

    Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo reviewed with disgust the final text from the conference, a text that had been gutted of any strong language of action or accountability. "What is left" Naidoo concluded, "is the clear sense that the future we want is not one our leaders can actually deliver." Of course, he is quite right but maybe it is time to look for some different leaders on these issues. I firmly believe a new generation of pragmatic and committed leaders was hard at work at the conference in Rio. Our job now is to identify who these leaders are and how to work with them to ensure they succeed. Incidentally, during Rio+20, my organization, the U.S. Green Building Council, was hard at work doing what we always do, certifying green buildings. Over the course of my five days in Rio, we certified 1.6 million square feet per day around the world -- the equivalent of five Empire State Buildings.