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The Business Scorecard from Rio+20

As 130 heads of state began their closing remarks in Rio last Friday, the blame game had already begun, and with it a knee-jerk dismissal of the Rio+20 outcomes as inadequate and not ambitious enough. Trade unions were “bitterly disappointed,” while the environmental community called Rio+20 “a failure,” “a hoax” and “a squandered opportunity.”

All this drama ignores the extraordinary effort demonstrated by Brazil to lead the conference to a resolution despite the economic downturn and political headwinds – indeed, it’s rather amazing that the conference took place at all. The knee-jerk overstatements also ignore the vast participation, pledges and funding brought to Rio by non-governmental and public-sector players. The UN reckons those pledges amount to half a trillion dollars. Given the scale of global challenges, more might be needed, but this is a significant starting point.  

For those who have taken part in previous UN sustainability events — including the original Rio earth summit in 1992 and the Johannesburg summit ten years ago — this is déjà vu all over again. Reactions after those events were negative too, yet we now hail them as landmarks in the international community’s efforts to advance sustainable development. So post-Rio pessimism is premature, and we should keep our eyes focused on the challenges of the next ten years and beyond, rather than comparing Rio to past summits.

From the standpoint of business – and there were record numbers of business people on hand at Rio – what were we looking for, and what did we get?

·      Clear, long-term signals for green growth that function in globalized markets and regulatory structures

Governments recognized the importance of reflecting national circumstances and priorities in green economy policies, and set in motion efforts in the UN to formulate better metrics and indicators to gauge progress. What gets measured gets managed, and business will work to ensure that emerging developing sustainability methodologies are rigorous, reflect externalities, and assess costs and benefits, and that access to environmental information protects proprietary and competitiveness-related data. Companies will continue to argue for using trade as a “carrot,” rather than as a barrier or penalty for different environmental standards or approaches, so that developing countries can realize the positive side of moving to more sustainable models of development.

·      Integrated, prioritized policies and institutions for environmental innovation and investment

Long-term challenges like climate change and food security will require the development and deployment of new technologies. With global FDI surpassing official development assistance, the private sector needs policy frameworks that enable ramped-up innovation and investment.  While the final outcome document in Rio recognized economic and environmental policymaking and the need for R&D, it seemed skewed to environmental, rather than economic, approaches. The Rio+20 process would have benefited from greater participation from economic, commerce and trade ministries. Moreover, the connections and synergies between Rio and the concurrent G20 Summit in Mexico were not exploited. And while the outcomes did not weaken the IPR protections that are so vital to innovation, business did point out the profound risk to sustainability that efforts to undermine such safeguards pose going forward.

·      Recognition and enhanced engagement for business, reflecting its central role in the transition to a greener economy

In Rio, references to business all too often wound up on the cutting-room floor as the negotiations reached the final stages. For example, in the declaration’s section on jobs and employment, the private sector is mentioned exactly once. Contrast this to the Agenda 21 document agreed to 20 years ago, where an entire chapter was dedicated to business. Still, industry groups were involved as observers in Rio, held four days of business meetings parallel with the negotiations, and recognized companies that are working successfully to help implement the Millennium Development Goals.  

In sum, Rio+20 succeeded in opening doors to new objectives for sustainable development, and initiated high-level efforts to heighten the political will for action. We will watch how governments shape those goals, and how they capitalize on the unprecedented response of business and other societal partners to Rio+20 by including them in the new bodies that emerge to address the sustainability challenge.

In her closing comments to the Rio+20 plenary last Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged us not to be “boxed in by the orthodoxies of the past.” She went on to say that in the 21st century, the “only viable development is sustainable development.”

Business knows this, and is already moving to green products and services. It is already pursuing new opportunities to reach new markets, create jobs, lift living standards and answer consumer needs all over the world — all with reduced environmental impacts.

In short, “business as usual” is really about constant change and competition, and the lessons of Rio+20 for us are clear. Rio+20 showed us that while governments don’t always move as quickly or decisively as the sustainable development challenge requires, companies that wish to succeed and grow have to redouble their efforts. And Rio+20 demonstrated that it will be up to the business community to step forward with solutions to sustainability challenges on an ongoing basis, starting today, and not only at once-every-decade UN conferences.

Podium image by razihusin via Shutterstock. Photocollage by GreenBiz Group.

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