Dispatch from Rio: Great(er) Expectations

Rio de Janeiro at night

By Mark Lee, SustainAbility

I’ve been in Rio de Janeiro for six days now for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, and something struck me this morning as I entered the last official day of business-focused meetings: We have not asked enough of governments.

After years of very little action on sustainable development from government, we have very low expectations. But, do our low expectations let governments off the hook? Is this, in effect, the government we deserve? Should we work harder to engage government directly to tell them what the business community needs and wants?

Low expectations of government are not without merit. Polling that SustainAbility and GlobeScan conducted pre-Rio+20 found global public opinion most damning of government in terms of action taken to deliver on sustainable development since the original Earth Summit in 1992. Meanwhile, the rumors of how little negotiators are likely to agree to by week’s end here in Brazil, are appalling. While speeches are made about poverty, discrimination, species loss and catastrophic climate change (7 degrees Celsius increase by mid-century?), it seems the negotiators representing nation states and their citizens will deliver little in the way of forward commitments and next to nothing in the way of immediate international action on the myriad and pressing sustainability challenges we face — and that this anniversary summit is meant to address.

Our pre-Rio+20 polling solicited the views of sustainability experts in addition to global public opinion. Experts said ‘renewed political commitment’ would be the most important outcome at Rio; however, with a quite weak outcome document expected from the last round of negotiations, it is not going to happen.

In nearly every presentation and hallway discussion I’ve been part of here in Rio, business and industry seem to have written off government action — and accepted that as a given. I applaud the determination of business leaders and institutions to move forward regardless, perhaps building enough momentum with non-governmental organizations to cumulatively overcome the inertia paralyzing international governance processes or maybe to shame public officials into action by demonstrating progress is possible — but this cannot be the end of the story.

Rather than sidestepping government, how might business and civil society bring them back to the table and force from them the competitively-neutral and sustainably-positive frameworks a sustainable society and economy need as guardrails?

If government won’t deliver an agreement that will thrill us at this Earth Summit, isn’t it time we presented a list of demands for the kind of government we expect as well as a statement regarding how we will help create it?

[Image credit: Wallace Ugulino, Flickr]

Mark Lee is SustainAbility’s Executive Director. He is based in Berkeley, California and his work focuses on helping companies do more and faster work to progress sustainable development.

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