Two decades ago, 20,000 people–including a small handful of business representatives, myself among them–turned out for the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. To the 50 or so of us from the business community, it seemed quite incredible. We were cautious and felt somehow out of place, in what was a visionary and pioneering discussion of new possibilities for synergy across economic and environmental policies globally.
This year, we anticipate over 60,000 participants from government and what the UN dubs “nongovernmental organizations” coming to Rio. Among the latter, it is actually groups representing business that make up the largest “nongovernmental” contingent. The International Chamber of Commerce, which serves as an umbrella for participating business representatives, is among the business groups that have registered 2,000-plus people.
This week, Sha Zukang, the secretary general of Rio+20, spoke to a standing room-only plenary meeting in Rio as the negotiations began, encouraging all parties to remember what we have in common in spite of different positions and difficult economic circumstances–the planet as our “most profound common denominator.”
Having been among the small group of business people in Rio 20 years ago, and anticipating the crowds of executives and association representatives who will be on hand here, I ask myself: What has changed? Why are business people here in such numbers, particularly when faced with naysaying predictions in the press and the political challenges that have dogged this process? How can the outcomes of this meeting in Rio, which over 100 heads of state have committed to attend–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent the U.S.–add value for business?
In the past 20 years, the notions of sustainability and a green economy have gone from the margins to the mainstream. Quite apart from the definitional debate over what exactly a green economy is, the business community believes that economies cannot be “greened” without one key factor: economic growth. And reviewing the negotiating text as it defines actions around water, food security, chemicals, energy, cleaner production and consumer choices, it seems very clear to us that there is another important common denominator: business.
Next page: The Green Economy Dialogue