Rio+20: The Future We Want?
Rio+20 is done and dusted. And the wrap-up? If the future we want is anything like the 49 page document of the same name compiled by Summit leaders, it’s full of fluffy bunnies, rainbows and birthday parties. In other words, a whole lot of ephemeral motherhood statements and not much substance.
Take point three, for example: “We therefore acknowledge the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions.”
Perhaps that green glow on Christ the Redeemer wasn’t a refracted environmental
beneficence after all, but a creeping nausea at the recognition that the leaders of Rio+20 missed their opportunity to signpost advances in sustainable development and establish clearly measurable commitments for the next 20 years of progress.
What the pundits said
Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo called the Summit an epic failure, while Oxfam Chief Executive Barbara Stocking labelled Rio+20 the “hoax summit.” “They came, they talked, they failed to act,” she said.
CSR guru and blogger Mallen Baker decried the Summit as a “waste of time,” undermined by inflexible organisers, backroom corporate motives and a general and growing global apathy towards sustainable development.
Similarly, environment author George Monbiot declared the tone and lack of commitment in the document “would be better suited to a retirement homily than a response to a complex of escalating global crises.”
Writing in the Australian Financial Review, Jagdish Bhagwati, Co-chair of the Summit’s Trade Experts Group and Columbia University Professor of Economics and Law, lamented the ‘unsustainability’ of Rio+20′s sustainability agenda, highlighting the lack of focus on critical environmental issues and a treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
Did anything good come of Rio+20?
In a personal attempt to steer us away from total despair, Rio+20 has at least placed several genuinely interesting and potentially very good ideas into the public arena. The question now is whether and how these ideas will be acted upon.
Friends of Paragraph 47: Horrendously bad club name. Great idea.
First, Rio+20 cannot be declared a total failure because at least four friendships were formed during its heady days. Despite their nerdily unfortunate moniker, the ‘Friends of Paragraph 47′ are out for a good cause. Denmark, Brazil, France and South Africa are committed to making sustainability reporting standard practice – an area in which South Africa already demonstrates leadership.
I just wish these folks had taken time to review the ever-useful WikiHow before making their commitment public: “15 Tips on How to Start a Successful Club: Tip #1: Decide what kind of a club it will be and think up a catchy name.”
Corporations make sustainability pledges
The UN Global Compact (UNGC) recorded two hundred corporate pledges on sustainability by the Summit’s end. Ranging in scope from carbon neutrality or major GHG reductions (e.g. Microsoft, Unilever) to publicly disclosing environmental data (e.g. NAB) to addressing food security (e.g. DuPont) to water management (e.g. Coca Cola, Pepsi, Levi Strauss), the voluntary commitments made have the potential to make significant dents in corporate contributions to climate change and social impact. Following the UNGC’s focus on time-bound, measurable commitments, businesses which voiced sustainability commitments during Rio+20 are expected to be held accountable through public disclosure of and annual reporting against those commitments.
The bold possibility of Sustainable Development Goals
Taking a glass half full approach, economist extraordinaire Jeffrey Sachs concentrated on the potential of proposed but yet-to-be-created Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to revolutionise the ways we measure collective well-being. Arguing that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an anachronistic measurement of well-being, Sachs believes the SDGs “could be transformative,” representing the possibility of improved metrics for life-satisfaction and well-being if they are agreed by the 2013 Special Assembly for the final review of the Millennium Development Goals. A globally accepted measure of country performance not inherently tied to financial markets? Now that’s an idea worth 20 years’ wait.
The wrap-up of the wrap-up
Rio+20 could’ve been stellar. In 20 years’ time, I could have told my daughter, “Yeah, while you were playing Duplo, the adults were busy making the world a better place.” Sadly, in penning the future of sustainable development, leaders eschewed difficult negotiations in favour of feel-good proclamations. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for implementable, measurable and publicly accountable sustainability targets to be agreed.
With a decade of experience assisting private firms, non-profits and government agencies to plan and advance their sustainable development agendas, Sara's career is committed to creating shared value for communities and companies through evidence-based decision-making, risk management and strong stakeholder engagement.
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