Written by Rod Oram, Sunday Star Times, 24th June, 2012:
BEING CYNICAL about the official declaration of the UN’s sustainability summit in Rio de Janeiro last week misses the point about what happened here. Sure, the lengthy communique was devoid of goals, timetables and strategies by which nations might make their progress more sustainable in economic, environmental and social terms. Superficially, all the global community did last week was to reiterate well-established aspirations and principles. The heads of state kicked all the substantive sustainability issues back to the UN General Assembly to try to progress them by 2015. The language of the document’s 283 paragraphs cruelly exposed their lack of ambition and commitment.
The leaders said ‘‘we encourage’’ 50 times and ‘‘we support’’ 99 times. But they used the phrase ‘‘we will’’ only five times and ‘‘must’’ three. This extremely weak outcome was testament to how difficult these issues are and how impossible, so far, achieving a global consensus on them is. Brazil, as host and chair, didn’t help. Mindful of the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change negotiations, the Brazilians pursued an efficient rather than effective outcome. To get a text they simply removed the issues on which countries could not agree. Hoping nations can unite to do better is extremely unrealistic. If the 4.4 million of us in New Zealand have increasingly conflicting views on our economy, society and environment, how can we expect the 7 billion people of the world to come together? Yet progress can be made – has to be made – when communities of interest, even the most local, form and make their particular contribution to solving locally intensely complex global problems. These include providing sufficient and sustainable food, water, energy, housing, transport, jobs and education.
In fact, this people-engagement was the triumph of Rio last week, distinguishing it from the first Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago. Back then the global community agreed on 27 principles of sustainability. This was a breakthrough, bringing sharp focus to humankind’s unsustainable course. They have helped shape some government policies, personal and community responses, and corporate strategies. It also triggered the UN’s climate change framework. But few people and organisations capable of turning ideas into actions attended the summit. For example, business was massively under-represented.
Instead governments were seen as the key players at home and abroad, particularly for pumping foreign aid into developing countries. This weakness is one reason why global progress since then has been an explosive mix of very good and very bad. Yes, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and hunger. But natural resource use has increased by 40 per cent in 20 years, the UN estimates, leading to massive degradation of the ecosystems vital to our lives and economies. Rio last week was completely different. This time governments were weak and civil society was strong. The doers were here in force, unveiling a blizzard of actions, goals, strategies, alliances, collaborations, coalitions and every other form of activity imaginable. This was particularly true of business, in its own realm and in its relationship with government. Together, the two spheres kept emphasizing the power of public private initiatives for progress.
For business the main showcase was the corporate sustainability forum, organised by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the United Nations Global Compact. The compact is the world’s largest voluntary corporate sustainability initiative. Launched in 2000, it has 7000 signatories in 135 countries, of which New Zealand contributes only three SMEs and one trust. Many of the world’s largest companies are members, and a number played leading roles in Rio and made substantial new commitments.
Here are examples: By 2020, Unilever plans to halve the greenhouse gas impact of its products; and Nike plans zero discharge of hazardous chemicals along its entire supply chain. With the world needing to double food production by 2050, DuPont pledged US$10 billion in research and development by 2020 for increasing productivity, scaling up nutrition and cutting back on food waste. It will also develop 4000 new products reflecting those goals.
Proctor & Gamble is aiming for US$50b in sales of ‘‘sustainable innovation products’’ by the end of this year; 45 companies, including Levi Strauss, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are extending their commitments to water management; and 23 companies pledged to transparency and disclosure on their impact on climate change. Some sector initiatives were also launched.
For example, CEOs of 37 banks, investment funds and insurance companies vowed to integrate natural capital considerations into their businesses. Similarly some 30 global insurance companies with assets over US$5 trillion, representing over 10 per cent of world premium volume, together with insurance associations, launched a set of Principles for Sustainable Insurance to develop insurance tools for risk management in support of environmental, social and economic sustainability, particularly on climate change, natural disasters, water scarcity, food insecurity and pandemics. Sovereign, the NZ insurer, was signatory to both. Charles Anderson, its CEO, was the only NZ businessperson among the 1500 who attended the forum. Inevitably such initiatives are challenging. They are wrestling with the great complexities of running a company more profitably and more sustainably. As the tools get better, more businesses around the world will benefit from them.
Meanwhile, here are two of many clear signals New Zealand businesses are missing this shift to sustainability.They were absent from this global gathering in Rio of business innovators; and Denmark put on an impressive show of technology and global engagement in many of its sectors, including sustainable agriculture. Instead, our government and primary sector are locked into an old game – seeking free trade agreements to expand markets for our commodities; and unsustainably driving up low-value production to meet that demand. Our government strongly supports the UN’s drive to develop Sustainable Development Goals. But it and we as a country are not pursuing them ourselves.