I had the opportunity to attend the much-anticipated Rio+20 conference last week. What I thought would be a week-long vacation with a couple of interesting talks thrown in turned out to be six long, but invigorating days of trying to keep up with all that was happening and absorb as much of it as possible. Outside of the official negotiations, there were over 500 side events on topics ranging from big-picture to super-specific, with discussions heated to monotonous, and outlooks glass-half-full to no-point-in-crying-over-spilt-milk. Over 50,000 people attended.
Armed with my notepad and pen, I captured snippets of both on-stage and off-stage conversations along the way.
Coming out of the conference, the question I’ve been asked most is: “Do you think it was a success?” I’ve picked out a few quotes that I think add up to a well-rounded perspective on the conference, and allow you to make up your own mind about the outcome.
“This feels like a fairground”
This came from a Brazilian student, looking around the conference grounds in wonder. And yes, in some respects, it was like a fairground. Many of the side events were held in Athlete’s Park, which was a large, grassy space crowded with tents emblazoned by countries, cities, companies and international organizations, showcasing their environmental achievements and offering free drinks, snacks and USB drives to lure in the crowds. I heard more than a few wry remarks about how much time, money and effort was put into PR and marketing, versus actual time spent thinking of ways to address the environmental crisis we face. For example, the Rio+20 ‘delegation’ sent by an auto maker consisted, in equal parts, of sustainability people and marketing people and this tendency wasn’t limited to companies. Presidents and prime ministers, sitting together on panels, spoke at length about their achievements and commitments made to date, but, more than once, the moderator had to call time before the discussion moved to the “now what”.
An angry protester outside the grounds held up a placard saying “Stop Talking, Start Acting.” Many coming out of the conference were frustrated by the fanfare, and shared that sentiment.
“The negotiations are just a convenient excuse to gather bright minds”
These were the words of an ex-energy and environment minister who assured me that the ongoing weakening of the draft text wasn’t anything to worry about. As Jeffrey Sachs put it to his audience, “the reason we’re here is that the world is filled with intelligent people who are way ahead of the [negotiators]”. In some cases, these intelligent people were able to hash out productive outcomes through the conference. Take the Natural Capital Declaration for instance, where the CEOs of 37 major financial institutions committed to building standardized methods to measure natural capital. This is being heralded as an important, concrete success.
Even in the many cases where nothing concrete emerged from discussions, there were still arguments for holding the event and inviting everyone. Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development at the World Bank pointed out, “we’re in the process of building a big tent…we can’t afford conditionality at this stage.” She explained that with many initiatives just getting off the ground, you don’t want to lose momentum because you didn’t involve everyone.
A young man (“in clean tech”, he said) standing in the queue behind me in the cafeteria: “I never came here for the political part; I’m here to meet other people in my industry.” And that’s also fair. “Knowing what others do is essential: we all operate in a context,” said Herman Mulder, Chairman of the GRI and ex-EVP of ABN AMRO.
“We have leadership, now we need followership”
These wise words came from my father, Pavan Sukhdev, who leads the TEEB study, an international initiative that draws attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity. The crowd at Rio+20 was diverse but specialized. Attendees from the business and government sectors were a self-selected bunch. Environment Ministers, Chief Sustainability Officers, Heads of Sustainability at multilaterals and NGOs were nobly advocating for change and making pledges, but found themselves preaching to the choir.
Representatives from leaders in business and government were all there: Puma, Unilever, and Denmark, Norway, Germany, to name a few. These leaders will continue to play a crucial role in setting the gold standard, and being our sustainability North Stars. But as they charge ahead, the gap between them and the remaining companies and countries may grow. And as the World Bank’s Rachel Kyte stressed, we need to get everyone on board as soon as possible. Neil Hawkins, VP of Sustainability at Dow Chemical, also spoke to this point: “we need a way [to value nature] that is actionable for all…we have to make sure the approach works bottom up as well.” For some, then, the conference served to highlight the gap between the doers and the don’t-ers, and stressed the urgent need for a restructuring of rules so that the trails blazed by the leaders can become highways for the rest
“What changes will you make on Monday morning?”
The ever-pragmatic Rachel Kyte posed this question to her fellow panelists the day before the official negotiations began. Those changes, she suggested, would determine the success of the conference. As of Monday, we saw a handful of noteworthy changes: the UK government confirmed it will institute mandatory carbon reporting rules, requiring 1,800 of the largest corporations to disclose their carbon emissions. Ten African leaders called meetings to begin preparations for their first set of ‘green’ national accounts. The UN got to work on its ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ Initiative, with $323 billion in funding.
It may indeed be too early to tell whether the conference was a success or not: it will depend on those changes that were made on Monday, and those that will continue to be made in the weeks and months to come.
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