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Great expectations of Rio+20? A debate

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 Summit runs from 20-22 June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will be attended by representatives of 190 governments, including Heads of State and senior ministers. The objective of the conference, according to the United Nations’ official website, will be for “governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, [to] come together to shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.”

In May in London, CDKN’s Chairman Simon Maxwell, with experts from CDKN Alliance members PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI), debated what we might expect from the Summit.  Would the economic crisis in the European Union eclipse bold thinking on environmental sustainability? Would governments take this opportunity to develop a shared vision for development goals beyond the Millennium Development Goals, which run to 2015? Panellists disagreed on how hopeful we should be about the Summit’s possible achievements. Rowena Mearley of PwC captured the highlights from the expert panel:

  • Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive, CDKN
  • Simon Maxwell, Executive Chairman, CDKN
  • Claire Melamed, Head of Growth and Equity Programme, Overseas Development Institute
  • Richard Gledhill, Partner and climate policy specialist, PwC
  • Alan McGill, Partner and sustainability reporting specialist, PwC
  • Malcolm Preston, Global Lead, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC

What can we expect of the Rio+20 Summit?

CDKN’s Sam Bickersteth shared his sense of possibility for what can be achieved in Rio, particularly on the topic of green growth, which has been declared a focal theme by the host government of Brazil: “We’ll be interested to see how the push for an inclusive, green economy can be delivered.  Rio+20 has an opportunity to refresh the agenda [on green growth], to re-vision it for business and the public.

The negotiating text produced by government representatives before the Rio+20 Summit was criticised by at least one panelist for its lack of ambition. Claire Melamed, Head of at Overseas Development Institute said: “My prediction for Rio is that very little will happen and we can safely regroup in a few weeks and start to think more coherently about what is going to happen after this. Uncertainty about Rio at the moment is almost a barrier to having these conversations.”

Simon Maxwell: “We have to have realistic expectations for Rio+20. I think it will be about the ‘mood music’, sustaining a process. It is important to create decision moments and political hooks that keep the process going: Rio must do that as well this time.

“Overall, my personal expectations for Rio+20 are low. What they won’t do is agree on Sustainable Development Goals because they’ve left it too late. They certainly won’t agree on climate because it’ll be left to Doha [UNFCCC Conference of the Parties meeting in November].”

What the Rio+20 Summit must do is recognise the relevance of and interconnection between environmental sustainability issues and the financial crisis afflicting the eurozone and broader global markets today.

Simon Maxwell continued: “The real risk is that Rio becomes an environment meeting and not one about jobs, growth, and livelihood, and therefore it will seem completely irrelevant to the youth of Greece, and Spain or any country experiencing high unemployment or economic pressures. Green growth is actually the future of the world economy. If countries do not adopt green options now, and lock themselves into city structures, factory and infrastructure that are not climate compatible, they will be stuck with old technology for a generation ahead, and that will cost them dearly in terms of competitive advantage. A number of the countries CDKN are working with are thinking about how climate change will affect their competitive position. South Africa, for example, with its renewable energy initiative, is pitching for jobs and industrial development, not just carbon emissions reduction.

The worst thing that could happen at Rio, Mr Maxwell continued, would be for the conversation about green growth to be the preserve of environment ministers. While they have an important role to play, it’s for the ministers of finance, industry and business to ‘lead the charge’ towards a  more ecologically sustainable and climate compatible economic order. Without this leadership, he said, “the overall process will ultimately fail.”

Hard targets for businesses?

It’s not just government leaders in the Rio spotlight. The Summit presents an opportunity for businesses to make new sustainability commitments – especially if governments lead with appropriate signals.

Malcolm Preston of PwC said: “I’d like to see some companies make some really serious commitments in Rio, and not just targets. In Durban, we saw a [government] commitment to sign up to development goals and sustainable development by 2015. That helps companies see that something is going to happen or change.

Alan McGill, PwC saw similar opportunities for businesses to ‘up their game’:

I’d like to see more organisations starting the push for mandating of reporting by business. There have been recent calls by Aviva and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development that sustainability information is mandated in mainstream annual reports so that investors and other key stakeholders have access to this information.

Reporting regulations and standards can ‘level the playing field’. Where national regulation is enacted, it will accelerate action from business, and change the business dynamic on corporate reporting. I’m hopeful we can see that come through from Rio+20.”

Capturing energy from business forums in Rio

Panelists noted that the Summit is notable for having four days of business meetings in the middle of the pre-conference negotiations and the main conference itself.

Malcolm Preston said: “I think necessity – or a crisis – is the mother of invention, and business is the group that has the potential to be able to sort out [environmental sustainability]. But business needs direction from policies.  Those government policies should provide ‘TLC –transparency, longevity and consistency.’

You are asking business people, who are economically rational people, to make decisions that have a pay back of 10-15-20 years. If they don’t have the confidence that the policies supporting those business investments, won’t last that long then they won’t make them. You can’t expect a CEO of a big business to make a decision without that ‘TLC’ policy support.

“PwC has run a global survey on CEO’s views on their expectation for Rio+20 and priorities in sustainable development. Energy access, resource scarcity, climate change, and social inclusion are all issues for their business, and they admit they expect them to intensify over the next ten years. 71% of said they would be prepared to take more ambitious action on the issues including poverty, water security, global threats and challenges if significant progress is made at Rio+20. They don’t feel they need global regulation and agreements in place, but they do need some indications that things are happening.”

Richard Gledhill, PwC, added: “A key issue for companies over the next ten years will be resource management. Those at the leading edge are putting in place resource management systems. In ten years time, customers, investors will be looking at resource usage and companies performance on it differently.”


Image courtesy Fernando Nunes.