Rio+20’s Legacy: Filling the Leadership Vacuum

Mark Lee of SustainAbility, Ursula Mathar of BMW Group
And Chris Coulter of GlobeScan kick off a discussion at the BMW Group Pavilion in Rio de Janeiro.

By Chris Coulter

Rio de Janeiro – The very fact that 50,000 people from across the world came together here for the Rio+20 Earth Summit because they are united in a belief that we can and must make accelerated progress towards sustainable development is significant. While the formal governmental declaration issued last Friday is as at least as disappointing as predicted, Rio featured enough examples of commitments and leadership from business and civil society to enable us to visualize how a transition to sustainability can happen even if governments refuse to lead the way.

For instance, UNEP was particularly effective in putting the Green Economy firmly on the agenda, while The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially path bending initiative around ecosystem valuation. And one of the elements of the negotiated agreement itself, the creation of a host of Sustainable Development Goals appears to have enough momentum to carry forward.

There were innumerable smaller scale initiatives launched or shared at Rio Centro, the Corporate Sustainability Forum, Rio+Social or at the People’s Summit that will catalyze action also. One example is our own Regeneration initiative, a unique collaboration launched by GlobeScan and SustainAbility, together with BMW Group, SC Johnson, Interface, Pfizer, Cisco, DuPont, Starbucks, WBCSD, ICMM, UNEP, the World Bank, National Geographic, Guardian Sustainable Business, Sustainable Brands, O Globo, Civicus, Net Impact, Sustain Our Africa, Fenton, BBMG, and Report Comunicação.

A discussion around this multi-faceted initiative, which aims to provide a roadmap for achieving sustainable development within the next generation, took place June 20 at the unique BMW Group Pavilion in Athletic Park, adjacent to the official negotiations.

The workshop, convened by BMW Group to explore the implications of recent global expert and public opinion research, involved stakeholders from Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This collection of scientists, academics, business executives, NGO leaders, and government officials explored the implications of surveys of 1,603 sustainability experts and more than 24,000 citizens. Highlights of the research include:

  • Of all institutions tested, both experts and the public give the poorest performance ratings to national governments when it comes to addressing sustainable development.
  • Nearly eight in ten (77%) sustainability experts think a major catastrophe will need to occur before national governments take action; 68 percent identify a lack of political will as the greatest obstacle to making further progress on sustainable development.
  • And yet, despite a trust deficit, both experts and the public believe that business, on its own and in collaboration with others, can be effective in making progress.
Nearly seven in ten of the 1,603 sustainability experts surveyed identify ‘lack of political will’ to be the most significant barrier to progress on sustainable development.

Discussion at the event began quite pessimistically as participants explored whether and how we collectively might best make progress addressing the serious economic, environmental and social challenges facing us. The tenor of the conversation changed as the very real opportunities for making progress through collaboration and partnerships surfaced. Moving beyond the disappointment of government performance, we collectively came to the realization that all of us – businesses, NGOs, academia, multilateral organizations – have the obligation to get on with the task at hand.

The deepening resolve to take on more responsibility and fill the leadership vacuum evidenced in our intimate discussion last Wednesday also seemed to infect the thousands of other non-governmental actors who came to Rio. There is no document or declaration associated with this psychological shift that has taken place in the sustainable development community, but it could be one of the unexpected positive outcomes of Rio+20.

Chris Coulter is President of GlobeScan, a strategic research consultancy

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