The sense of frustration left by the low ambition of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference in Sustainable Development final document, especially among environmentalists, should surprise no one. The global economic crisis raging since 2008 put governments and the more established non-governmental organizations on the defensive and seriously limited what could be achieved long before President Dilma Rousseff opened the gathering of leaders on June 20th. Not much should have been expected from an official gathering that President Barack Obama could not attend for fear of hurting his chances of reelection in November. The lack of significant progress in the implementation of the Climate Change and Biodiversity conventions adopted in the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and the refusal of rich nations to consider setting up a $30 billion fund (a fraction of what they spend on security, defense and wars) to assist poor nations in the transition to the “green economy” proclaimed as goal by all severely limited what could be achieved. “One should not ask for ambition in action where there is no ambition in financing,” said Brazilian chief-negotiator Luis Alberto Figueiredo Machado, responding to the UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon, who at one point expressed his disappointment with the modesty of conference results.
Having participated in the UN Corporate Sustainability Forum held before the official gathering, I left Rio more hopeful about the future than the official part of Rio+20 would allow. As governments clearly fumbled in the face of the complex challenges of imagining and building a more equitable and sustainable economic growth model in the decades ahead, I saw senior business executives and leaders of civil society engaged in intelligent and productive dialogue about difficult issues at hundreds of thematic panels held at the Corporate Sustainability Forum and other sessions held in Rio.
In this sense, Rio+20 signaled a welcome change of dynamic in the public policy debate that may not be apparent but is substantive and potentially consequential.
The hostile economic environment brought about by the global economic crisis did not inhibit business leaders from publicly debating the difficult issues with representatives of governments and NGOs, nor from making commitments for which they will certainly be held accountable. These commitments were simply unthinkable at Rio ‘92, when the very concept of sustainability was only just beginning to develop. “Many argue that business is at the heart of many of these problems. But this sweeping indictment fails to see the potential of business, if properly channeled, to produce many of the solutions needed to drive positive and transformative change,” argued Mr. Georg Kell, the executive director of the UN’s Global Compact, which has attracted 7,000 corporate signatories, including 45 global companies in 150 countries driving innovation in areas as diverse as energy and climate change, women’s empowerment and anti-corruption. These companies already incorporate environmental and social issues into their agendas. “Companies have long understood that environmental and social issues are risk management concerns,” Mr. Kell said. “But now they are seeing good global citizenship as central to their goals. In Rio de Janeiro, we will be making the case for investing in global public goods and standing by universally-recognized UN values.”
In the debate that I moderated, the Mr. Tae-won Chey, president of SK, South Korea’s the third largest business conglomerate, acknowledged that corporations engage in civic activities partly as a matter of image. SK, whose 86 companies make $96 billion a year, dedicated $300 million in 2012 to various educational and ecological projects. Mr. Chey proposed, however, the creation of a “ Global Action Hub, an IT platform where the building blocks of social enterprise can be exchanged” to solve social problems. In his view, the Global Action Hub “would not be just a simple IT platform but a comprehensive one where investors, experts and social entrepreneurs would join forces for networking and information exchange to further enhance positive effects by social enterprise.”
The SK chairman cautioned about the limits of current models of corporate social responsibility, stressing that it is not sustainable and needs to be rethought and incorporated into the business models of companies more as an investment than a cost. “We must go beyond philanthropy and build social enterprise as an important vector of social and political innovation,” he said.
One particularly strong message warmed my heart. It was given at the conclusion of the Forum by the former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, director of the United Nations Organization of/for Women. “Gender equality must be at the center of the sustainability agenda,” said Bachelet.
Let me explain: two weeks ago, my wife Eloisa and I welcomed our first grandchild. Clarice was born in Missoula, Montana, a place whose scenic beauty belies the reality of ecological collapse brought about by the pattern of savage exploitation of its once abundant natural resources.
Montana is home to the broken model of development that cannot be reproduced in the years to come, when the world will incorporate 2 billion more inhabitants, not to mention the legions of poor people, most of them women and children, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their sacred rights to eat, study, and live dignified and fruitful lives have to be upheld in a world still to be imagined and built that we will leave to our children and grandchildren - the world in which Clarice will grow up.
This article originally appeared in Estado.