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For business, is it worth going to Rio+20?

It’s easy to be cynical about international sustainability meetings.

Lots of talk, lots of commitments, but generally little follow through.

Who remembers today Rio 1992’s ‘Agenda 21’, which looks just as relevant today – and just as unimplemented.

On this basis, the signs don’t look that great for Rio +20.

A lot of business people I know are not going as they feel it’s just not worth the time and effort.

There’ll be little or no access to the main government discussion forum, (reportedly) tens of thousands of participants, and a jamboree of events spread all over the host city (which is engaging in a bit of price-gouging, to make sure someone benefits…).

Overall there seems a lot less impetus behind it than in 2002 and 1992.

I’m hearing this from several well placed sources.

It’s clear to everyone that from a political leadership point of view, not a lot will happen.

The Obama administration has apparently described it as “aspirational“. Although that quote is from Fox news so bear that in mind.

Put this down to governmental preoccupation with financial crises or unwillingness to tell the voters that the 20th Century business model is nearing its end and resolve to pioneer a new ‘green industry’ one, as companies like Unilever are doing.

So a replay of the Durban climate meeting last year looks pretty likely.

On the business side it does of course represent a considerable opportunity to showcase solutions, progressive thinking and the potential of collaboration to drive sustainable change.

Since Johannesburg a leadership group of companies has emerged and are taking on the challenges outlined in Agenda 21.

More’s the pity that governments and industry associations aren’t supporting these moves more strongly.

For example the Business Action for Sustainable Development (Who? I hear you ask) website’s main homepage article on it dates from January. Not a great sign.

A key question is what will the WBCSD do at Rio+20 in June?

The new boss, Peter Bakker, is a former TNT CEO and an impressive figure.

Mandatory reporting? No

On the reporting and transparency side of things, there is a small body of NGOs (Green Economy Coalition), business (Aviva) and standards developers (GRI, IIRC) and others pushing for recognition of the need for more and better sustainability reporting, with some calling for a ‘report or explain’ position for bigger companies.

Cold water is diplomatically being poured on this from on high by many larger developing countries and some OECD ones (US, Canada, Australia), this is notwithstanding that most of their bigger companies already do some form of sustainability reporting, and that the 2002 Johannesburg Summit specifically encouraged more non-financial reporting.

One more example of governments going into short-term thinking, and long term denial, mode.

The UN

From the UN side, I hear that when it comes to business partnerships and collaborations, there’s lots of recognition of the problems, but capacity/ability for the follow through is not where it could be.

Inter-agency co-ordination is improving but remains a key challenge, as does mobilizing governmental funding.

According to one source I spoke to at the UN in February, lots of bilateral partnerships are set to be announced, with a ‘target’ of 1000 already set.

The vibrant Brazilian NGO scene is set to be very active. Although how relevant any of that will be for outside of Brazil is not clear to me yet.

I do know that quite a few senior heads of CR / SD are going from the really big companies. I suppose they feel they have to, and no doubt some will make announcements at the summit, which will help generate some headlines and build recognition for hard won leadership and progress.

That’s all fine. But it’s not making me allocate £3K+ from any of the budgets I work with to going along to hear about them, not to mention the time needed to go.

For heads of sustainability in big corporates, it may well be worth going along though. If your firm operates in South America, it may be useful for networking.

Even if not, and your firm is really multi-national, it may be worth it for the connections. It is a risk though.

This is perhaps despite the not-very-inspiring agenda of the struggling UN Global Compact conference taking place on June 15-18 in Rio. That’s not making me jump on a plane.

Here’s a further link so you can take a look and make up your own mind.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    I agree with most of what you say and I am internally at UN. There would be so much to showcase and discuss (and agree on) there but the Rio+20 organizers (not the normal programme managers who carry on the real work) are the less avant gard UN people and have not understood the relevance and opportunity. A less political UN with less hierarchies and a more horizontal administration and OPEN to NEW ideas might be the change needed for the next summit! Maybe the alternative Rio+20 will be more successful?