Rio or Bust? by Martha Shaw

Rio+20 or Bust?


By CSRwire Contributing Writer Martha Shaw

The first intersessional meeting to plan for the Rio+20 Earth Summit 2012 kicks off United Nations International Year of Forests with high stakes.

The United Nations has flipped the calendar from the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity to 2011 International Year of Forests. The new year was marked by the first intersessional meeting of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development called UNCSD (Rio+20). The two days of meetings, January 10-11, were well attended and highly motivating to the hundreds of participants who gathered to prepare for Rio+20, also referred to as Earth Summit 2012. The Rio+20 will take place in Rio de Janeiro on May 14-16, 2012, 20 years after the first Earth Summit 1992 in Rio and 10 years after the second Earth Summit 2002 in Johannesburg. Though the name “summit” in the UN land of acronyms typically refers only to meetings of heads of State, the term has become acceptable, and the conferences embrace a diverse cast of characters.

It was noted that there has been insufficient progress made in 20 years to stave off the consequences of an increasing population with decreasing resources. Cited was rampant unregulated behavior of individual consumption of goods, lack of environmental and social regulations imposed on business, and failure of governments to govern theft from the commons. Global leaders are looking to areas where there is progress, however, which can help chart a course for the future.

One point that appears to be unanimous is that Rio+20 needs to be the summit that saves the world. The planet itself may persist in some form despite man’s brutal attack on natural systems, but the health and survival of our own species remains in limbo. So what will it take for the UN to save the world?

It isn’t going to be business as usual. What is unique to the upcoming Rio+20 is that together we are reinventing a whole new field, namely a Green Economy, which is yet to be defined. A new green economy must address the interdisciplinary nature of society, environment and economy far more extensively than has ever been done before. Our economies need to shift to achieve human well-being without ultimately destroying the environment upon which well-being depends.

One of the interesting things about UN processes, especially those that involve environmental issues, is that these days they involve not just countries negotiating with each other, but civil societies, labor unions, local governments, scientists, NGOs, and now a significantly increasing number of businesses. This adds to the complexity of negotiations and puts pressure on pre-summit intersessional meetings, preparatory meetings and conferences to come to conclusions prior to the summits – in the interest of time.

Traditionally businesses have entered the dialogue through NGOs. At the UN on Monday, the new Business Action for a Sustainable Economy (BASD2012) was announced as a collaboration between three existing business NGOs, the International Chamber of Commerce, World Business Council for Sustainable Development and United Nations Global Compact.

The UN Member States discussed the crucial role business must play in the Rio+20 Earth Summit. BASD 2012 held its first formal event focused on the business role in advancing sustainable development. This event, “Introducing BASD 2012,” was intended to build momentum toward Rio+20 by demonstrating the achievements of the private sector in contributing to economic, social and environmental (ESG) goals.

Though there was agreement that neither governments, societies nor NGOs can function economically without business, issues were raised about the dangers of greening greed and losing control of resources to ubiquitous multinational corporations – some of which are larger in scale than nations. Another thread of discussion took place about what constitutes the national boundaries of a business. Though we can celebrate achievements of the private sector in contributing to ESG goals, the marginalization of resources and destruction by unregulated business was of concern.

Yet businesses have been looking to governments to make decisions about regulatory guidelines that have not been forthcoming. Without these guidelines businesses have no choice but to self-regulate, which in some circles is a conflict of interest. It was also pointed out that trillions of dollars a year are lost to corruption within governments.

Earth Advertising presented the concept of a widespread business survey regarding goals for Rio+20 that includes, but extends beyond, the membership of the BASD2012 to businesses of all sizes, including those eco-preneurs and pioneers who founded the robust global networks that began the sustainable business movement.

Turning to nature for answers in both organizational behavior and clean tech innovation is a field known as biomimicry. One scientist showed examples of how many of the problems we seek to solve have already been solved by nature. Not only does science need a seat at the negotiation table, but so does science education or we will be dealing with a society that cannot understand the concepts being negotiated on its behalf.

In 2012, 20 years after the first Earth Summit, global leaders will return to Rio de Janeiro to assess progress made and chart a course for the future. At the first intersessional meeting this week, the attendees questioned whether their thought processes were innovative enough to solve the complex problems facing our global society in a time of financial crisis. If their level of commitment is any sign of the future, then Rio+20 could be a turning point for the better in the evolution of man’s relationship with our environment. As the meetings came to a close, many of the attendees flew off into a blinding snowstorm to catch another meeting in Panama City on sustainable consumption and production (SCP). These are some of the hardest working people on the planet and they deserve a preliminary round of applause.

About Martha Shaw

Martha Shaw is a contributing writer for CSRwire covering clean technology and other topics. Martha has been named an Adweek Creative All Star and is the winner of international awards in communications. She is a member of the Climate Literacy Network, Fellow of the Explorers Club, board member of NYSES and CEO of Earth Advertising.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers’ community and expresses this author’s views alone.

Readers: What do you think, Rio+20 or bust? Where do you think the sustainability movement needs to go in the new year? Share your thoughts with us on Talkback!