GLOBE-Net, June 27, 2012 – The Rio+20 Summit has come and gone, leaving many of the over 45,000 people that made the costly journey to Brazil wondering if it was worth the effort. Their concerns are justified. Rio+20 could have delivered so much more. While it should not be dismissed as a complete failure it does raise the question of the utility of these massive and costly global meetings.
Given the unsettling economic realities globally and geopolitical upsets of great moment in many parts of the world, expectations for Rio+20 were modest at best, which was to be expected; but even these low expectations were not met.
But then this is 2012, after all, not 1992. Then the Soviet empire was in tatters, the world was emerging from a prolonged period of economic malaise, and a growing sense of optimism was spreading throughout the developing world that a re-balancing of the fulcrum of economic power was not only possible, but inevitable. Then, many believed agreements on climate change and biodiversity could be realized.
Recognizing that a post Kyoto agreement was unlikely at Rio given the failure of the Copenhagen talks the UN organizers looked to participating governments to endorse a tepid 49-page statement of what a more sustainable low carbon future might entail (“The Future We Want“).
Even this process was flawed. The Brazilian hosts of Rio+20 insisted that the final text be approved by all before world leaders arrived. Any text that could have generated debate was deleted or replaced with non offensive language, which one observer has noted, was lame even by the standards of international diplomacy.
This tedious reaffirmation of principles already agreed to at past conferences is intended to serve as the basis for further negotiations in the months and years ahead, according to the United Nations.
Green economics figured largely in the more active discussions at Rio+20, and while The Future We Want may be the starting point for further discussions, the real action is likely to involve those players who were noticeably absent at the first Rio Summit, but who were present in large numbers this time around – the leaders of the world’s leading business corporations. And perhaps this is the one saving feature of Rio+20.
More than 1,500 senior business leaders took part in several allied events that took place during the Summit week in Rio and the commitments made by the business community have been singled out by many commentators as the one bright light emerging from Rio. (A complete compendium of these commitments is available here).
Rio+20 was an opportunity for corporations such as Unilever, Puma, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric and many, many others to table new action plans, to share ideas, and to showcase new best practices leading to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly operations.
The financial and investment community also played an important part in making Rio+20 less of a failure. Thirty-nine banks, investors and insurers signed the Natural Capital Declaration, a commitment to work towards integrating natural capital considerations into their financial products and services.
As one observer has noted, the commitments by businesses and financial institutions to factor a more sustainable use of air, water and natural resources into their accounting and operational practices, would not have happened without the platform and attention delivered by the UN conference.
Most of that innovation and the power to bring it to the people most in need lies in the hands of forward-looking businesses that realize their survival depends upon their more efficient use of energy and natural resources, and the need to adapt not only to climate change, but also to the growing power and complexities of new markets in the developing world.
As noted by the Regeneration project, as multi-national companies become more powerful, with value chains that extend across hemispheres and time zones, their capacity to play a key role in driving action on sustainable development will become much more important. This fact was very evident at Rio+20.
Summing up, The Future We Want document is imperfect. But can serve as a starting point for a new set of expectations that will lead to real action and the progress toward a lower carbon future.
Where governments have failed to lead, through the medium of public-private partnerships, businesses can show a practical way forward.
Yes, I believe that Rio+20 could have achieved a great deal more. But I don’t believe it was a total failure. Let’s start from where we are, not from where we wished we might be.
John D. Wiebe
President and CEO