Dispatch from Rio+20: The UN Kicks the Paper Habit – at last!

Text of my news feature published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 23 June 2012

The UN Kicks the Paper Habit – at last!

By Nalaka Gunawardene
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The United Nations secretariat – the world’s largest bureaucracy – has long been known as a formidable ‘paper factory’. It cranks out millions of documents every year in the organisation’s six working languages. Some of it is not read even once.

A few years ago, it acknowledged producing over 700 million printed pages every year (2005 figures). The cost of printing documents in its New York and Geneva offices along was over 250 million dollars a year.

And major international conferences convened by the UN have seen a splurge of paper – both official documents and many that are simply self-promotional of various participating national delegation, development agencies or companies. When such events end, literally tons of paper are left behind convention sites.

Environmentalists have been urging the UN to go easy on paper for many years, both to save trees pulped to make paper, and to reduce chemicals use and carbon emissions in printing or copying.

The message is finally being heeded. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro is the first major UN event to reduce paper use – and it shows.

The entire meeting process is using less paper, and more electronic means for generating and sharing information. It’s the result of a new initiative called PaperSmart.

The vast Rio Centro convention centre, where the main inter-governmental meetings and major groups’ discussions are being held, is surprisingly paper-free.

So is the media centre, the operations base for hundreds of journalists from all over the world covering dozens of parallel sessions and events. In the past, this was a favourite ‘dumping ground’ for paper based materials.

At Rio+20 this week, only a handful of non-governmental organisations, academic bodies and activist groups still peddled paper. Most others had cut back on indiscriminate distribution of publications, posters, postcards and other materials.

Of course, the UN system loves to belabour the point. A dedicated website (http://papersmart.un.org) explains the underlying thinking and mechanics. PaperSmart is based on four principles: sustainability, efficiency, accessibility and knowledge management.

Switching from atoms to electrons has not been easy or smooth. Some participants – including web-savvy journalists – have been struggling with the complicated Rio+20 website and related online UN information services.

It’s still a work in progress, but PaperSmart is definitely a positive development to be cheered.

“After decades of sanctimonious preaching about the environment, the United Nations is taking a step in the right direction,” says Thalif Deen, the UN Bureau Chief of the developing world’s news agency, Inter Press Service (IPS).

Deen is a veteran of many UN conferences and processes who has seen how telexes and teleprinters gave way to instant global communications with Internet-enabled laptops and smartphones.

He recalls: “I was on the reporting staff of the first conference newspaper IPS published during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio where the UN’s carbon foot print was all over the conference centre: reams and reams of reports and documents and thousands of UN staffers flying in from UN offices the world over.”

Deen hails Rio+20 as “a major breakthrough for a global institution long accused of extravagance and conspicuous consumption”.

A few years ago, Deen asked Shashi Tharoor, then UN under-secretary-general for public information, on when the paperless office might finally arrive at the UN Secretariat.

The digitally savvy Tharoor admitted the UN’s track record was not a good one. He then offered a comparison: “The amount of paper we use in a year to produce every single UN document, in all six official languages, is equivalent to what the New York Times consumes to print a single Sunday edition.”

Things have evolved a bit both in the newspaper industry and the UN bureaucracy since that remark was made in 2005. Newspapers in the west are now selling less, especially in paper editions.

Simply stamping out paper use can be misleading unless the total energy and resource uses are factored in. In recent years, concerns have been raised on the carbon emissions of massive internet servers.

Of course, these are dwarfed by the amount of planet-warming gases spewed out by delegates flying long distances to be in the same crowded conference with thousands of others.

As at June 20 evening, Rio+20 had close to 40,000 officially registered participants in various categories. Many unofficial events attract more.

Environmentalists, relieved by the reduced use of paper, would also be quick to point out growing problems of electronic waste.

It seems there is no such thing as an impact-free communication!

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “Dispatch from Rio+20: The UN Kicks the Paper Habit – at last!”

  1. Maybe they should have convened in cyberspace so that no one had to travel anywhere, presuming the internet would not crash. Imagine how much certain tamasha-loving politicians would have been put out!

  2. Perhaps they should have convened online, presuming the internet could support such a massive event. Imagine how put out certain junket-jolly politicians would have been.

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