Lessons on the road from Rio: A post-mortem

Inflection Points

Lessons on the road from Rio: A post-mortem

Was the Rio+20 shindig a colossal waste of time, jet fuel, and stratospheric ozone? Well, yes and no.

Yes, inasmuch as it did manage to achieve the almost impossible: it under-achieved even the risibly low expectations held for it by the international sustainability community.

No, if the sustainability community finally wakes up to the fact that the development and environment ministries which dominated individual countries’ preparations for Rio+20 simply don’t have the political or financial firepower to even make a dent in the towering environmental, social and stability challenges of our time.

As an additional reconfirmation that Rio+20 might not have been entirely in vain, the inveterate optimist in me says that the “summit that never was” may have made a genuine contribution to global sustainability: it just may have been so utterly underwhelming that it has finally convinced even the most travel-happy UN bureaucrats to never, ever attempt such ill- conceived nonsense again. If it can accomplish even that much, it will have been well worth all the environmental destruction generated by the travel of its 50,000 delegates and hangers-on.

I fear, however, that this laudable goal will only be achieved if we can learn the lessons of Rio:

Lesson #1: Rhetoric has never been a reasonable substitute for action, and that isn’t about to change any time soon. Governments can “ encourage”, “recognize” and “reaffirm” all they like, but that will accomplish nothing, beyond perhaps deceiving the unwary into thinking something concrete might actually happen. Perhaps the most powerful game-changing sustainability policy work ever, the 2007 Stern Report on climate change, was commissioned by Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown through his Treasury (Finance Ministry). There’s a real lesson there. Let’s keep the sustainability action near the real power.

Lesson #2: 100 heads of state will rarely agree on what day of the week it is, much less specific prescriptions for enormously complex and intractable global challenges such as those posed by the sustainable development imperative. Witness the unlikely and unseemly alliance of the United States and Kazakhstan — yes, Kazakhstan — to water down the wording of even the anodyne language “encouraging” companies to report on their sustainability performance and challenges. Monty Python-esque springs to mind.

Lesson #3: A logical corollary of Lesson # 2: grand, global-scale, top-down efforts to forge inter-governmental consensus on long-term, complicated, inter-generational issues are actually worse than a waste of time if pushed solely through environment and developmental ministries. The governmental piece of Rio+20 accomplished literally nothing, in the opinion of this jaundiced observer (who is an alumnus of the original Rio Earth Summit). The 53-page Conference “agreement” document (titled, perhaps in jest, The Future We Want) was lamentably thin gruel, in the face of problems which are arguably even more acute than they were 20 years ago. Post-crisis global citizens in the new age of austerity (and the super rich) will no longer be fooled by grand summits convened by those with no real decision-making powers. Again, where were the finance ministries in Rio+20?

Lesson #4: Even in the impossible event that 180 governments worldwide had somehow managed to agree on anything of real substance, virtually all of them lack the financial resources, moral and political legitimacy, and imagination to actually do anything about those agreements anyway. (Kyoto Protocol, anyone?). Even a cursory examination of the litany of broken and non-implemented “commitments” from the initial Earth Summit should quiet any skeptics on that count. And, what’s worse, we’ve been down this road before, many, many times. When, oh when, will Einstein’s brilliant definition of insanity get more traction? We do keep doing precisely the same things, over and over again, and yet we somehow appear to genuinely expect a different outcome each time afresh.

Lesson #5: In the future, let’s leave the heavy lifting to the only organizations that realistically have the financial resources, legitimacy, management skills, and reasonably robust governance structures that give them at least the realistic possibility of success: on the non-governmental side, that leaves corporations and NGOs. And on the governmental side, we have to bring a different set of national ministries to the table, as well as stop treating local governments as after-thoughts at best..

Lesson #6: While we’re identifying potential change agents, let’s not forget the enormous power of the capital markets and investors to change both corporate priorities and sustainability outcomes. After all, the $30 trillion in assets signed up behind the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment ain’t exactly chopped liver, even if only a miniscule percentage of it has actually been directed according to the principles so far. It’s a start. (I would have included investors as part of Lesson #5, but careful readers will have noted that I used terms such as “legitimacy” and “robust governance structures “ in that lesson. These are not among the distinguishing features of the investment community these days, so...).

Lesson #7: Just to be clear, I am not declaring a pox on all international confabs on the subject of sustainability. Far from it. What I am suggesting, however, and forcefully, is that future gatherings should more closely resemble the model pioneered by the Clinton Global Initiative. That is, they should be all about concrete demonstrations of best practice, knowledge-sharing, and the making -- and monitoring over time -- of worthwhile commitments by entities with a realistic, prima facie case for believing that they could actually accomplish them. Enough with the grandiose and top-down; let’s put our money on multiple, bottom-up approaches. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

In fairness to Rio+20 (a bit of a departure for this article), a promising start in precisely that direction was actually on display, in the form of the Corporate Sustainability Forum. Over several days, more than 200 specific commitments were made by private corporations, some alone, others acting in collaborations. The commitments covered a range as broad as the sustainability challenge itself, from nature conservation to clean water, to sustainable agriculture, and they can all be monitored and evaluated!

This “side-event” must have dismayed the sizeable “dinosaur wing” of the UN bureaucracy, where the very existence of the private sector is still only grudgingly accepted, where indeed it is accepted at all. To go further and propose solutions which are primarily dependent for their success on the morally malodourous private sector borders on heresy. Still, if you’re keeping score -- and we should all be -- I’d be willing to bet heavily that the eventual track record of fulfilled commitments will compare very favorably to the sorry track record of government in this space.

So, Rio+20, rest in peace; with a bit of luck, you will be the last event of its kind. If so, we will all be in your debt.