It’s tough now to be optimistic about policy, the economy or their combination. The eurozone is reeling in the face of defaults and potential defaults as well as lack of shared vision about managing and paying for future challenges. US stock markets entered August downbeat after the bitterly partisan deficit showdown. They then suffered major declines by the month’s end, while the job-creation numbers released at the start of September suggest American economic malaise will linger. Emerging economies remain vibrant, even boisterous, but questions about inflation in Brazil and elsewhere are amplifying, debate over corruption has taken centre stage in India and pundits wonder how China can maintain torrid growth while its western export markets remain in the doldrums.
Against this backdrop, 2012 will bring important sustainability milestones, most notably the 25th anniversary of the Brundtland Commission, set up by the UN to investigate environmental concerns, and Rio 2012. Rio 2012 is a successor to the 1992 Earth Summit, heralded at the time as a turning point in the way in which society, the environment and the economy interrelate. As the Earth Summit’s anniversary approaches, is there more hope for sustainability than there is for the financial markets? Where would you place your bets?
That Was Then
Looking back, 1992 flashed brilliance. It was ambitious and by many measures a breakthrough for sustainability to command such a gathering of heads of state – 20,000 attendees and 10,000 media. It re-shaped approaches to sustainable development with Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration, and it begat the UN Framework convention on climate change and the UN convention on biological diversity.
That 1992 produced only a framework convention on climate change hints at the challenges. The summit was to encourage sustainable development action, and its centerpiece was to be a treaty addressing global warming. This was blocked by North-South disagreement. Developed nations did not want an agreement that might impede growth, and emerging economies would not accept limits on the nature of their future development. While this all sounds very Copenhagen 2009, that Rio 1992’s promise remains unfulfilled is evidence of perhaps intractable problems facing the multilateral system and its ability to negotiate actionable consensus.
So while many viewed the Earth Summit as a great, even inspiring event, it failed on follow through, unable to deliver the change needed if society is to live within ecological limits. By nearly any sustainability metric you might choose – biodiversity loss, fresh water access, greenhouse gas emissions accumulation, ocean acidification or socio-economic inequity – we are farther from the Brundtland definition of sustainable development (development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) than two decades ago.
This Is Now
Now Rio 2012 looms, scheduled for 4-6 June. Economic issues dominate headlines, and there is serious doubt (especially since CoP 15 in Copenhagen) as to whether grand multilateral bargains are possible at this juncture. Many governments are enacting or deepening austerity measures, and even those in better economic health tend to see seriously underwriting sustainability – by leadership example, financial investment or adequate regulation – as optional.
In the private sector, the mantra has long been that regulation is not needed. Most business rails reflexively at any threat of policy intervention, claiming voluntary action will be sufficient or even more effective. But once you get past a small vanguard of leading companies, it’s nearly impossible to find evidence this is true. Where leaders have risked unconventional approaches and coalitions, such as the businesses and NGOs that joined General Electric and the World Resources Institute in the US climate action partnership, they find it incredibly difficult to build momentum sufficient to realise their ambition.
Place Your Bets
The lesson may be that, no matter how unique or courageous, a very few exemplary efforts is not sufficient to enact system change. We need hundreds or thousands of business leaders, partnered with (and sometimes pushing) civil society and government, not merely a handful. And we need business leaders willing to embrace a full suite of solutions – including regulation, where it is smart, appropriate and raises the competitive floor above which all private enterprise fairly competes, then lets business get on with finding and implementing solutions.
Like its predecessors, Rio 2012 is long on drive, aiming to speed development of a global green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, and to establish a better institutional framework governing the process. But we have to acknowledge it faces long odds for success – by which we mean creating conditions to foster the emergence of sustainable societies and markets quickly enough to avoid the ecological and human catastrophe that science warns is looming.
The House Always Wins
If the rule in Macau, Monte Carlo and Las Vegas is that the house always wins, in Rio, the question is who we perceive – who we allow – the house to be. If it’s again a combination of timid and self-interested government representatives, too influenced by incumbent businesses more interested in the status quo than change, and they together allow only safe, incremental steps, we all lose. But if the house at the Earth Summit is the planet, and we are prepared to make difficult political and economic choices in response to its constraints for our own long-term health and prosperity, there is a chance.
Rio 2012 will be defined by leadership and courage (or their absence). In 1992, a gathering and a wake-up call could be judged at least a limited success. Rio 2012 succeeds only by catalysing rapid global action. The private sector, with its unique ability to enact change rapidly across markets in every region, as well as the potential to scuttle policy reform that it views as threatening, will be a critical player at the table. With the right degree of foresight, and not a little bit of luck, it just might choose to lead.
Mark Lee is the executive director of SustainAbility. Chris Coulter is senior vice-president for strategy & collaboration at GlobeScan. Together their organisations are working on initiatives about leadership, trust and value in the lead-up to Rio+20. To learn more, contact Mark and Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com or via Twitter on @markpeterlee and @cdjcoulter“.