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Deconstructing Rio+20 and Finding Some Inspiration

3p Contributor | Monday July 2nd, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Mark Lee, Executive Director, SustainAbility

Before the massive Rio+20 conference in Brazil earlier this month, Chris Coulter of GlobeScan, Dan Hendrix of Interface and I published Icebergs Near Rio? The article explored sustainable development progress since the original 1992 Earth Summit and asked whether policymakers would seize the opportunity of the anniversary event to chart a future course capable of accelerating and scaling sustainability in the manner we believe necessary, or, like that fabled and fated ship, risk a Titanic collision – in this case with the ecosystem rather than an iceberg.

If you followed Rio, you know that the diagnosis of the formal negotiated outcome delivered by governments June 20th is nearly universally downbeat, while the assessment of the contribution made by business, civil society and some emerging economies is, in many quarters, quite positive. These articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Financial Times as well as this interview with Ma Jun (recently chosen as Fast Company’s ‘most creative person in business’) in China Digital Times typify this kind of sentiment. Echoing the common theme, The New York Times piece says that while Rio+20 ended “under a shroud of withering criticism” it was notable for its demonstration of “a new assertiveness by developing nations in international forums and the growing capacity of grassroots organizations and corporations to mold effective environmental action without the blessing of governments.”

But we are left with the question: Was the peripheral action at Rio enough? Can we build from there the required momentum to avert eco-catastrophe and serve the economic needs of nine to 10 billion people? That is nowhere near certain.

To be clear: I was inspired by various private sector commitments and actions announced in Brazil. The energy around the concept of a green economy as referenced in the Outcome Document The Future We Want and championed by UNEP at Rio (as I wrote about here) was notable, and I believe its emphasis on ‘decoupling’ (delivering – and sharing – greater economic growth while decreasing environmental inputs) is particularly important.

Similarly, I think the finance sector’s Natural Capital Declaration and the promise made by the twenty-four major companies (collectively worth a half a trillion dollars) assembled by The Nature Conservancy and Corporate Eco Forum to “demonstrate the business imperative of valuing nature” around developing means to measure and account for natural capital may, in time, prove to be the most transformational events of the summit. As my SustainAbility colleague Lindsay Clinton details here “by calculating the value of what nature provides to make the stuff we buy, and also by measuring the harm a product inflicts on the environment during production or consumption, we can gain a more realistic understanding of the costs of goods and services…[which may] lead to massive changes in the way we make, consume, and dispose of products…[and] that behavior change [might] put us on the path to sustainable development.”

It’s telling that the examples above are not being undertaken exclusively by business alone – UNEP is critical to the green economy work, and the second ‘valuing nature’ effort listed would not have come about without The Nature Conservancy and Corporate Eco Forum – but material, too, is the role not being played by government.

As Rio+20 neared its close and I prepared to fly home to California, I penned this piece challenging business and citizens to demand more of the elected officials who represent us in forums like Rio+20 and who are responsible for setting the policy foundations necessary to encourage and speed the emergence of a sustainable economy and society. My fear is that business and civil society have become so dismissive of governments’ ability to act, so as to discount its part too soon – and thus provide a free pass not to deliver, as elected officials, professionalized and armed with polling data, now naturally devolve to the lowest level capable of meeting our base expectations.

With GlobeScan, SustainAbility undertook global public opinion as well as sustainability expert surveys on expectations for leadership on sustainable development ahead of Rio+20.  While we need to augment the findings with further research, this summer (which will take into account Rio+20’s outcomes), some clear messages about how to make future progress are already emerging.

Multi-sector partnerships will be critical. Absolute performance (in terms of eco-efficiency, e.g.) must radically improve in all segments of the economy. Global institutions must rebuild trust, as they are seen as having failed in their fiduciary responsibilities to consumers and citizens. And the very loudest message of all? While there is great dissatisfaction with government performance progressing sustainable development over the last two decades, there is high conviction also that government must do the most to lead in the years ahead. To my mind, this means leadership by example – governments themselves must acknowledge concepts like planetary boundaries and participate in development of the green economy – and set the necessary guardrails for sustainable development with regulation that is as competitively neutral and sustainably positive as possible.

To return to the private sector, while I laud the leaders present in Rio and the commitments made, to celebrate business performance relative to the present initiative of government is to delude ourselves. The business spokespeople at Rio+20 represent a thin cream on top of an uncertain and yet uncommitted whole. Did you see the US Chamber of Commerce acknowledging the human role in climate change and committing to organize its membership to address both mitigation and adaptation? Did you note the American Petroleum Industry’s positive influence on The Future We Want? Neither did I…because these bodies, and their like worldwide, representing mainstream business, are still just as far off the mark in terms of advancing the sustainable development agenda (versus preserving the status quo) as government – maybe more so.

A personal note to end. In spite of everything, I emerged inspired by Rio+20. My favorite moment? The group of young people walking backwards around RioCentro to symbolize governments’ lack of progress on the Outcome Document and since 1992. I believe everything is still to play for in sustainable development terms. And certainly those young people deserve more from those in positions of power today. But business and civil society, while deserving plaudits for their efforts, won’t succeed alone, nor should we confuse the best of them for the norm. Let’s take back our governments and make them do their part, and recognize also how much remains to be done to convert the mainstream of business and society to the cause.


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