By The Numbers: Rio Commitments Nonprofits, Businesses and Governments Pledge Half a Trillion Dollars Toward a Sustainable Future

Rio+20That’s how much money was offered in commitments by the end of the Rio + 20 conference held in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, this past June. The conference was the 20-year follow-up to the original Earth Summit in Rio—a gathering of world leaders, business leaders, nonprofits and citizens from around the globe whose mission was to set a course forward for sustainable development. Many media outlets focused on the conference’s official proclamation and bemoaned the lack of binding greenhouse gas emissions targets or commitments to end fossil fuel subsidies. In an article on, Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth’s director of policy and campaigns said: “The current deal on the Rio table is really scraping the barrel—with woolly definitions, old ideas and missing deadlines.”

But Jacob Scherr, director of global advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says the entire model for these global conferences has changed. “The top-down one-size-fits-all treaty or plan of action—you can’t do it,” he says. “It just doesn’t work.”

The new model in evidence at Rio + 20 was one in keeping with the 21st century, with an emphasis not on global treaties but on commitments to action by a variety of stakeholders—including governments, corporations and nonprofits. “The journalists only focused on the official negotiations,” Scherr says, “and it’s like putting someone in the eye of the hurricane, looking around and going ‘This is really boring, there’s nothing going on.’ Missing the fact that all around this placid core is all this amazing activity.”

The NRDC created a web platform,, to highlight and categorize a portion of the more than 700 voluntary commitments made at Rio + 20. They include the island of Aruba pledging to transition to 100% renewable energy; international banks committing $175 billion toward sustainable transportation worldwide; Bank of America pledging $50 billion over the next decade toward renewable energy, energy efficiency projects and energy access; Germany committing to draw 80% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050; and Microsoft pledging to be carbon neutral across its operations by the end of 2013.

When taking these commitments into account, the legacy of Rio, Scherr says, is one of resounding success. Speaking for the NRDC, he says: “We were interested in having presidents and prime ministers, but also CEOs, mayors, governors and heads of philanthropic organizations talk about very concrete actions that they will take to meet some of these global goals. We were very pleased with the results of Rio, because we saw hundreds of commitments being made.”