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
Groups like the United States Council for International Business are here in Rio to call for policies that will drive economic growth while improving environmental quality and creating social benefits, not least of which are jobs, whether green or any other color. For business, this is vital. If done right, the Rio+20 outcomes can provide enabling frameworks to smooth the way for technological innovation, and new markets for energy options and other products, services and improved, more efficient processes that are at the heart of greener growth.
In anticipation of Rio+20, the United States Council Foundation, working with a number of partner organizations from business and the NGO community, organized an innovative program called the Green Economies Dialogue (GED). Through a series of workshops around the world, the GED has brought together policymakers, NGOs, business and researchers to brainstorm and discuss practical ways that green growth can be integrated into globalized economies and markets.
Over the past year, the project has informed international policy deliberation in the lead-up to Rio+20, with industry, government and other actors working together to map the transition to a global framework where the private sector and the marketplace have bottom-line motivations to drive improvements in technology and business practices.
Through intensive dialogue sessions in Washington, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, and Brasilia, the Green Economies Dialogue has provided a platform to discuss key international policy issues, with the goal of ensuring that economic growth and the pursuit of environmental objectives go hand-in-hand. Issues addressed included access to environmental innovation, the role of international institutions, trade and climate policies, the role of subsidies and many others.
In addition, as part of the GED project, academic research has been commissioned for publication in the influential publication Energy Economics, with research papers by highly regarded experts exploring a variety of aspects of green growth and green jobs.
So as we begin here in Rio, the sprawling conference facility of RioCentro is still under construction, somehow in line with the work-in-progress nature of the agreements governments hope to reach at this meeting. As work gets underway in several perhaps aptly named “splinter groups,” we hope governments will seriously consider bringing business into the conversation and the implementation ahead. We have come to Rio to engage and to act, and we look forward to contributing to an actionable outcome as the legacy of this historic event.
Image of Business people standing with question mark by Yuri Arcurs via Shutterstock.