Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – UN began its PaperSmart (Integrated Sustainable Papersmart Services), paperless program at Rio+20, where paper was replaced with digital media. One thing is for sure, information was hard to get at the summit and everyone at Rio Centro was a little lost.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

In past conventions the UN used a system of “pigeonholes”, or mailboxes, where people left a paper trail of information to the desired country or organization.

During my early teens I always thought of paper as the biggest villain causing environmental problems, for a good reason at the time: native forest were being cut down to make virgin paper pulp.

This is not the case anymore, where most of world’s paper come from “managed forest”, as the vast majority in Brazil, and native tree forests are mainly exploited for other reasons today, such as lumber and minerals, agriculture and squatting.

Interestingly enough, a film came out during this time called Goodfellows, where a character in the movie, Jimmy Two Times said, “I’m gonna get the papers get the papers.” A good segue from this movie line was highlighted by two particular situations I encountered while attending this “paperless” summit.

A European delegation officer asked the people at the main desk for a paper copy of the events list but was denied one. The man said: “You mean to tell me that I flew over 5,000 kilometers and you can’t give me single piece of paper?” I told the man, listening over his shoulders, “You can take a photo of it and keep it for your records”. The man looked back at me and said, “right”.

Second story. I met another man from another delegation who could not download the UN App because he did not have a “smartphone”, even though Wi-Fi was freely accessible at the conference for downloading information if you could actually locate the information online.

Once again, I suggested to this second gentleman he could take a photo of the list of events from the piece of paper found at the front desk and then text the photo to his colleagues. The man looked at me and said, “but our delegation does not have a service phone provider here because we don’t live here.” I said, “right.”

After these two incidents I thought to myself: what is the real carbon footprint of a cell phone photo versus that of a sheet of paper? If we consider that both of these politicians flew to Rio and consumed about three metric tons of CO2 each in fuel alone.

Then we consider the environmental consequences of extracting rare metals to make a lithium batteries and the plastics and metals used to make the microchips and frame, without forgetting the underpaid work and harsh conditions of Chinese factory workers who made that phone, can we justify this paperless PaperSmart program being apt and not just an App? At the very least interpersonal communication is still important, though, being a cyborg maybe obligatory in future summits.

There were enormous quantities of cardboard paper derived from the packaging material from the electronic products purchased for the summit, including flat screen TVs, computers and printers, approximately 28 cubic meters of paper a day. According to an undisclosed UN Brazilian (ONU) source, some 1500-1800 electronics where purchased for the event, including printers, scanners and 350 flat screen TVs.

I did not get an approximate number of computers purchased for this event but I’m sure it’s a staggering number if you consider all the printers and TVs purchased. Questions are circulating in Brazil as to what happened to this equipment. Did it get donated to the schools and government offices as originally intended? What happened to the new industrial size printers in those shady back door rooms?

I believe the UN should experiment with teleconferencing. This would avoid every single person attending a summit buying a smart phone and it could also decrease the use of paper flyers, not to mention it would dramatically reduce the carbon consumption and costs of such events.

Each of the 193 UN member-states could receive their very own electronic equipment for teleconferencing, provided free of charge by the UN, for participating in the next Global Environmental Teleconferencing summit (“GET”). It is unfortunate that the PaperSmart program is pushing forward this misguided concept of consumerism enticing people to buy new consumer electronics.

UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said during one of his speeches that the most important resource we need right now is “time”. I agree and I believe that our environment can’t wait any longer for us to decide what is good and bad for it, we have to act now.

But is the UN getting that NYC phone(y) fever? Where people want to make lasting impressions, behaving as they need to get somewhere fast while talking on their new smartphone about doing not so important things? I hope not because people will eventually see right through it, at some point.

Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


  1. Although the Rio+20 summit failed to galvanize the support of governments in addressing the effects of global warming, people all over the world are more and more living with global warming’s effects. Every day seems to break a new heat record. When the movements for social justice and the movements for environmental justice converge, a new society – one that lives in harmony with the planet – will emerge.


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