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Rio+20: the Good, the Bad

Like most of you, I have been following Rio+20 with close interest, and I must confess I got a bit confused regarding what to think of the summit. I read everything, and its opposite. I saw enthusiasm as much as negativity. Was it that bad, and why? Is there any good to remember it for, still? I may not be the only one in this case, so I tried in this post to be as objective and neutral as possible, and appreciate the summit for what it was. If anything, I’d say 17-years-old Britanny Trilford got it right as she opened the Earth Summit. If only the world leaders could speak the same language… I leave you to her speech, before debriefing.

One thing nobody can deny, is what Mallen Baker – in his article {{LNK|“Rio tells us something we need to learn”|}} - qualified as a general lack of interest or “glimmer of optimism” for this year’s summit. Although quite an exciting event, in case big decisions were made, nobody really expected “anything significant to happen”.

If Rio 1.0 - “the mother of all sustainability conferences” as Dr. Sara Bice from the ACCSR calls it – remains our referential, another sad thing about this year’s conference was its lack of political leadership: If fresh off the election French President Hollande was there in person, “most developed world leaders (still) stayed away altogether.” Such attitude from the World’s leaders surely did not help sustainable development’s credibility, as Rio is supposed to be a way to address crucial topics to the governments.

And this is critical, as Baker highlights, as it somehow testifies for the fact sustainability as a topic may have gone “off the boil…” and this for a number of reasons. The first one he mentions is recession. The economic situation has put a lot of people “back into the mindset that says that environmental sustainability is less important to them than money in the pocket.” Also, the issue has gone out of fashion, it is no longer new, and “people stop paying attention as it is not directly visible”. In {{LNK|an article published in the Independent|}}, Michael McCarthy also added to the list the fact that climate change skeptics – “hardly any of whom are climate scientists, and many of whom are funded by the fossil fuel industry” – have somehow managed to sow the seeds of doubt in the public’s mind about the issue, since the warming process also appears to have slowed down.

To Mallen Baker, “Rio+20 was a waste of time. A conference held because the length of time since the last one had reached a round number - truly a ridiculous reason to have a summit.” In the words of {{LNK|George Monbiot|}}, “the text represented nothing more than 283 paragraphs of fluff". As the author points out in the Guardian, we have shifted over the past twenty years from “sustainability”, to “sustainable development”, to “sustainable growth”, to “sustained growth” – which according to him is “is the essence of unsustainability”. And even though the declaration was full of paragraphs that “could be illustrated with rainbows and psychedelic unicorns...”, concrete elements like figures, dates and targets were missing.

If {{LNK|James Murray confesses on Business Green|}} that “for governments that are committed to the development of greener and more sustainable economic models the text provides yet further evidence that more environmental policies, investments and regulations are on the cards”, he also highlights it mostly left enough room for “governments who do not want to embrace green policies can continue to soft pedal.”

What a disillusion… Yet, this is just an overview of the negative side, one pessimistic way to summarize the summit. As Matthew Gitsham tells us via the Guardian, we also have “reasons to be cheerful”. If governments have been reluctant to taking the lead, a phenomenon that would have never been expected 20 years ago has nevertheless taken place: the rise of a new generation of business leaders to become major actors in advancing the sustainability agenda. Here are a few examples, listed in Gitsham’s {{LNK|“Rio+20: reasons to be cheerful”|}} article:

• Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, “personally lobbying government leaders to support the introduction of a global set of integrated sustainable development goals to guide co-ordinated government policy on sustainability and growth”.

• “Insurance giant Aviva” to lead “a coalition of financial institutions lobbying for UN member states to introduce mandatory integrated reporting for large companies on sustainability issues alongside conventional financial data.”

• “Asda, Philips, Sky, PepsiCo and others to complain that the UK government was too slow in introducing mandatory carbon reporting (the UK government announced at Rio that all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange will be forced to publish carbon emissions data from April 2013).”

• “Puma, Mars, Rabobank and Standard Chartered to be among those lobbying for national governments to introduce alternatives to GDP – more comprehensive measures of national progress, wellbeing and natural capital"

Since the road towards sustainability has always conventionally been seen as a fight involving hard-to-convince-but-eventually-wise governments attempting to implement change in the face of resisting businesses, business leaders involvement is something that only the most optimistic of our “visionaries and dreamers” would have conceived back in 1992, as the author mentions. Although a lot of companies are still engaged in green washing, and despite the existence of powerful organizations like the fossil-fuel lobby, a few big corporations do take the matter of sustainability seriously and tend to increasingly focus on giving back to the society.

According to Sara Bice, in her article {{LNK|“Rio+20: Here We Are. Entertain Us”|}}, such incorporation of social, environmental and community issues, as well as such focus on “discerning best practice for sustainability reporting” represent more than a significant shift, “an extraordinary” progression. “I hope Rio+40 provides us with similarly positive points of reflection” she says, to conclude on her post.

So maybe most of us have been too quick in “joining the blame game” Baker talks about. Maybe we just forgot the long road we came from. Maybe most of us are just too impatient, too ambitious and should try to be less, as Murray says. “we should downgrade expectations and instead focus on delivering smaller agreements that can enable practical action. Demonstrate that they work and then the all-encompassing agreement becomes far easier to deliver”.

Even then, corruption and lobbying will remain a major obstacle, and "unseen corporations (will keep) influencing the agenda." A solution could be what famous economist Jeffrey Sach’s proposed {{LNK|via the Guardian|}}: a next presidential candidate who’d refuse any contribution from big corps, and would raise funds from social media, because if “both political parties are in the pockets of big business (…) the one thing these companies do not have is the vote.” To be meditated…

Meanwhile, Rio+20’s decision “to delay the adoption of new Sustainable Development Goals” probably until 2015, matches last year’s ambition to reach a global climate change agreement by then. Problems: will the international community be able to respect the deadline – although such international negotiations “almost invariably" miss them? And will 2015 not already be too late to start thinking of an agreement, as “plenty of climate scientists” seem to assert, as James Murray warns us? If you have ever taken a repeated rain check on some major task at work, you will surely agree such permanent postponing starts to be worrying...

What is your opinion about it? Which side is yours? Don’t hesitate to give us your feedback about the summit, as it is hard to really reach for a concrete conclusion.

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