Slow pace of sustainable development a key issue for Rio+20

Slow pace of sustainable development a key issue for Rio+20

The Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development, scheduled for next month, arrives at a time when several reports -- including one recently published by WWF -- warn that global consumption patterns continue to outpace the Earth's capacity for renewal of resources.

"Scientists find alarming signals that the relentless pressure of our economy is exceeding the resilience of the biosphere," said the report from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), an organization of 200 companies around the globe with total combined revenue of more than $7 trillion. "Unless we radically adapt the way we use our natural capital, the very basis of our wellbeing will break down."

The report, released at the B4E Conference in Berlin, expresses the growing sense of urgency leading up to Rio+20.

"Realizing inclusive sustainable prosperity is a complex challenge," the report continues. "It needs the willful adoption of policy measures that enhance each other in a cycle of continuous progress."

The transition to a truly sustainable global economy cannot occur without meaningful policy frameworks, said the report. Corporate moves to embed sustainability into their business operations and investor willingness to support sustainable development without the assurance of government support are not enough to reverse an unsustainable course.

An example of government inaction on sustainable development was the recent refusal by the U.S. Congress to end subsidies to fossil fuel industries. Afterward, Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Keith Ellison introduced the End Polluter Welfare Act, which "would comprehensively abolish fossil fuel subsidies."

"All forms of fossil fuel subsidies should be rapidly eliminated,” the WBCSD report said. “It is high energy efficiency, renewable sources, and low-carbon technologies that now need financial support and risk insurance guarantees for early action and private investments."

Government leaders have communicated mixed messages on their support for sustainability measures.

"We strongly support efforts to rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption, and to continue voluntary reporting on progress," announced the Group of Eight leaders this week. But the leaders also announced their support for environmentally damaging practices such as deep-water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

WBCSD's report proposes the following developments:

  • Set goals with a clear purpose and specific goals that define the world in which we want to live;
  • Communicate and educate the public to foster understanding and commitment to pursue sustainability objectives;
  • Standardize by enforcing and introducing performance standards, emission or usage limits and codes of conduct;
  • Budget through fiscal reforms to price scarce natural resources and negative externalities;
  • Invest for efficient infrastructures, technology developments, and green public procurements that mobilize private capital for green growth;
  • Monitor progress through adequate indicators that compensate for the limitations of GDP; and,
  • Coordinate governance that is predictable, coherent and persistent.

Last month, WBCSD and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) wrote to Rio+20 negotiators, calling for a sense of urgency in speeding up the transition to a sustainable economy.

"The current voluntary transition to sustainability is too slow to meet future challenges and must be accelerated," said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, the director general of IUCN. "Governments must now go further and make sure that all businesses play their part."

The letter recommended "predictable, stable policies to help business scale up sustainable solutions." It also called for an "explicit requirement for companies to adopt standardized, rules-based sustainability reporting."

This article originally appeared at and is reprinted with permission.

Photo of snail on chart by Igor Kovalchuk via Shutterstock.