Creating the future we desire: Reflections on Rio+20

Author: Richard Gledhill

The Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development highlighted businesses’ growing commitment to sustainability. But with environmental challenges taking a backseat to economic ones within many governments, could green growth slip back from a lack of political will?

In June of this year, Rio de Janeiro played host to tens of thousands of politicians, business leaders, non-governmental organisation (NGO) activists and journalists from around the world for the ‘Rio+20’ summit.

The original Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 had set in train global agreements on climate change and biodiversity. But the economic climate in Europe and elsewhere provided a difficult backdrop for those with optimistic ambitions for the outcome of this year’s Rio+20. Activists spoke of ‘10 years to save the planet’, but for many politicians, saving the euro was perhaps a more urgent issue.

Perhaps inevitably, the end result was a disappointing compromise. The document that was finally signed off, ‘The future we want’, covered a wide range of issues, but lacked ambition and detail. The NGO community, in particular, was vocal in its criticism of the process and the outcome; one group of prominent NGOs countered with their own take on the outcome—‘The Rio+20 we don’t want’.

Success or failure

Has the perceived failure at Rio exacerbated sustainable development risks, or was it just a milestone on the long road to addressing these? It is probably too early to tell. As previous summits have demonstrated, it isn’t always easy to judge the true impact until a little while after the event.

When rating the success of Rio+20, it is also important to note the developments beyond the formal international process, on valuation and reporting, on governance and risk management, on avoiding deforestation and building natural capital. This is perhaps what Rio did best, spurring and showcasing bilateral activity, partnerships and commitments—‘bottom-up’ actions to complement and sustain ‘top-down’ declarations from the UN process.

One of the other encouraging aspects of Rio+20 was the level of private sector involvement at the conference. Few companies attended the first Earth Summit. But with 1,400 private sector representatives, the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum drew the highest level of participation from the business community of any UN conference.1 Sustainability is now a strategic issue for business leaders, and some of the most exciting initiatives in Rio were prompted by the corporate sector. The central role that the private sector has to play in delivering sustainable development was even recognised in the final communiqué.

Among the pledges was a commitment from Microsoft to achieve carbon neutrality through offsetting actions. Unilever launched a drive to halve the greenhouse gas impact of their products, and Nike’s target was zero discharge of hazardous chemicals along its entire supply chain, both by 2020.2

The importance of sustainability goes beyond reputation. With competition for natural resources increasing and energy and raw materials prices proving increasingly volatile, the need to develop a more sustainable future makes clear business sense.

There was some disquiet among many G77 developing nations at the Rio+20 summit that ‘green growth’ means ‘less growth’. But as Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, said earlier in the year, ‘We cannot burn our way to prosperity. Providing sustainable energy to all offers benefits for developed and developing countries alike. It can also enable developing countries to leapfrog over the energy systems of the past and build the resilient, competitive, clean energy economies of the future.’3 And as the article in this edition, ‘Reaping the benefits of a greener China’, notes, President Hu Jintao of China has stated that ‘economic growth should not be achieved at the expense of the livelihood of people and the environment’.

This engagement by the private sector may help to sustain progress through difficult political and economic times. But the message from the private sector at Rio was very clear. Governments need to provide the context for private sector action and investment through coherent, long-term policies, effective regulation and strong leadership. For businesses trying to drive the sustainability agenda, this is the future they want.

1 UN Global Compact media release, 16.06.12.
2 UN Global Compact media release, 18.06.12.
3 Address by the Secretary General of the UN to the UN European Sustainable Energy Summit, 16.04.12.