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Rio+20: Interview with Ed Norton, UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity

Edward Norton, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity.
F. Soto Nino
Edward Norton, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity.

Rio+20: Interview with Ed Norton, UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity

Among the thousands of people attending Rio+20 is US actor and conservation activist Edward Norton, who also serves as the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. In an interview, he told the News Centre why biological diversity and its significance for the world.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) has brought together thousands of people from all walks of life to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to help shape new policies to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and advance social equity and environmental protection.

Among the heads of State and government, parliamentarians, mayors, UN officials, business and civil society leaders, and community representatives attending is US actor/director and conservation activist Edward Norton, who was named UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity in July 2010.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Norton spoke about the importance of learning how biodiversity affects our daily lives, why local initiatives are key to making progress on sustainable development issues, and why he remains optimistic about the world’s chances to make a positive impact in the environment.

UN News Centre: You have been a UN Goodwill Ambassador for two years. Can you tell us about your experiences and what you have learned during this time?


The Caspian Sea is a rich source of biodiversity, as well as natural resources including oil and gas. Photo: Shutterstock/Elnur

Edward Norton: It has been very illuminating to get immersed in the specific agenda of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the way that it relates to the larger macro-strategies that have been implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and all these big label programmes.

Prior to doing this, I was not well-versed in or familiar with the mission structure of conventions within the UN framework, but I think that it is a very important strategic approach because the CBD is a way of pulling the international community together around a very specific critical agenda and figuring out a set of rules, protocols, agendas and agreements, and then injecting that set of specific targets in these larger frameworks that we used to invest in these programs.

I have been very impressed with the persistence and insistence on behalf of a lot of the people at the CBD to getting biodiversity highlighted within a larger sustainability conversation, because I think that biodiversity is a more abstract concept to a lot of people than other issues like deforestation.

People kind of – on a broad, grass-roots level – can get their mind around the idea of what deforestation represents as a problem, and they can get their minds around things like carbon-loading in the atmosphere and global warming, but biodiversity is a very abstract concept to people.

And how it connects to them in their own lives and how the loss of species and biodiversity impacts people, impacts economies, is very murky even to some people in the environment field. So I think, for me, it has been partly a process of learning more about that myself and then trying to help the CBD figure out how to do a better job of connecting the dots for people, making that a story or a narrative that makes it clear to people as to why they should care about this issue.

UN News Centre: Has visiting some of the places with decreasing biodiversity helped you connect those dots?


Forests are home to 80 per cent of our terrestrial biodiversity. Photo: UNEP

Edward Norton: In addition to what I would call the data and meeting-driven process that CBD goes through in terms of carrying its information, its data, its platform, to the global constituency of nations, the flipside of the experience so far is that we have gotten to actually visit small grant programme projects for the GEF in places like Kenya [and] Rwanda, where you can actually see on the ground how UN investment is impacting people’s abilities to make subtle changes in the way they are practicing their livelihood, that fosters sustainable approaches to ecosystems, biodiversity and things like that.

It has been illuminating at an intellectual level talking to people like Pavan Sukhdev, author of the TEEB (‘The Economics and Ecosystems of Biodiversity’) report, but also going out in the actual communities and seeing the ways that people are making very positive adaptive change that both supports preservation of biodiversity and gives them a preferential economic opportunity.


Ed Norton addresses a press conference on the dangers of global biodiversity loss. UN/R. Bajornas

You know, it has to do with a lot of things that affect us. Biodiversity relates to the way we get our food, the storehouse of genetic information that we derive a lot of our pharmaceuticals and drugs out of, it relates to our tourism industry which is a multi- million dollar industry, and in many ways it relates even to our watersheds in the sense that the biodiversity of forests has a lot to do with the health of the watershed where we get our fresh water.

Biodiversity is not just about the spiritual or the intrinsic value of all the amazing species that live on Earth. It is also about many, many of the fundamental pillars of our economy that are woven into biodiversity health.

UN News Centre: What are your thoughts on criticisms that progress on addressing issues like biodiversity through events like Rio+20 is painfully slow?

Edward Norton: I think that the thing about these large gatherings is that there are multiple things taking place at the same time. On one level, there is that high-level governmental negotiating process that everybody in the world focuses on and crosses their fingers and hopes that agreements will advance in very substantive ways, and I think that is the level on which people tend to be the most frustrated or impatient or disappointed with, in the slow pace of getting nations to agree on treaties and policy and things like that.

That is the part that everybody would like to see move along faster, but I think it is worth recognizing that at the same time that that is happening, a lot of conversations are taking place around the fringes, like the one between the Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Development Program. In the two years that I have been involved, I have seen very substantial progress toward the integration of cutting-edge data and strategies into the way that the UN funding gets applied. UNDP has invested millions of dollars that will help biodiversity projects around the world. So, beneath the level of national agreements, these things have a big impact on the way that programs get funding and the way communities receive money and actual change flows out of that.

Relevant points

  • The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): Signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Convention seeks to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. It recognizes that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and microorganisms and their ecosystems and involves people and the need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live.
  • Pavan Sukhdev is an economist and was the Special Adviser and Head of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, as well as the lead author of the agency’s Green Economy Report.
  • UNDP’s Development Programme Equator Prize is awarded biennially to recognize and advance local sustainable development solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.

The other thing is that there is an enormous amount of idea-sharing going on at these kinds of gatherings, not only between the agencies and the scientists, but also between the public and the private sector. There are a lot of companies here, a lot of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and there is a lot of value to the promotion of these ideas between the public and the private sectors because in parallel to the governments making agreements, a lot of people are figuring out that the movement toward sustainability, efficiency, and protection of ecosystems has a lot to do with better business metrics, better investments returns and all kind of things.

You cannot get cynical about it. There is so much going on at something like Rio+20. It is just not about what gets published at the end of it. A lot is happening that produces immediate action and direct action beneath the idea of an international treaty. So I think there is a lot to be optimistic about.

UN News Centre: What would you say to someone who wants to get involved on the issue of biodiversity?

Edward Norton: I think that it really is true that local efforts are critical. At the end of the day no big national agency, no huge NGO, for all the good they do… they cannot all do the work in a specific community in a specific ecosystem. That takes local heroes and local organizations working on small pieces of the puzzle to defend specific species and specific local ecosystems. Almost anywhere that you live there is some good local organization that, in some way or another, is fighting for the health of the local ecosystem or the health of some very important species in your area – and I think those local organizations need support. Whether it is using one of the great crowdsource funding platforms to raise a little bit of money amongst your family and friends to support a local group that is doing good work in your area, or volunteering or contributing what you can. I am a big believer in supporting small local efforts in your backyard.

UN News Centre: What do you plan to do while at the Rio+20 conference?


Through renewed emphasis on agricultural biodiversity, quinoa, a highly nutritious crop from the Andes has become popular globally. Photo: Shutterstock

Edward Norton: Well, the Convention on Biodiversity has a lot of partnerships with other UN agencies like UNDP and UNEP and the GEF, so I am talking to each of them about advancing the CBD agreements and new standards within their platforms. We are having some really interesting conversations and there are lots of really interesting forums going on. People from all kinds of government agencies are coming to listen to people like Pavan Sukhdev to talk about the new economics of natural resources, so I am just going to attend and participate in a few of those things.

I am also hosting the Equator Prize dinner for UNDP, which is a really great event because it highlights the local heroes all around the planet who have taken extraordinary efforts in their local communities to advance sustainable livelihoods and adaptation in their small little corners of the world.

When you say, what can members of the public do? Well, the Equator Prize is about people from often very poor communities and very traditional cultures all over the world who have made an extraordinary difference with very little resources, and I think it is very inspiring for everybody to hear their stories.