Has the Rio +20 Earth Summit really been that bad?

Vague, unambitious, disappointing, the Rio text has angered many, but businesses should not ignore an agreement that still holds out the prospect of green growth

22 Jun 2012, 16:19

The towering statue of Christ the Redeemer that dominates the Rio skyline is meant to be a physical evocation of welcoming benevolence, but looking down on the city this week Jesus' outstretched arms look more like a gesture of wearied pleading – a plaintive, shrugged shouldered, WTF.

Responses to the Rio+20 Earth Summit this week and the misleadingly titled "Future We Want" draft agreement range from genuine "outrage" to the more measured "disappointment".

The only groups thought to be even moderately content with the agreement are the Brazilian hosts, who have avoided the ignominy of the talks collapsing, and the Chinese and US delegations, which have managed to again sign up to green growth in principle while not committing to anything they interpret as posing a risk to their domestic economic agendas.

Meanwhile, the EU, while couching its response in diplomatic language, is palpably angry at the lack of ambition in the text, and poorer nations have yet again failed to secure the sustainable development funding they desperately need, leaving them staring impotently down the barrel of multiple environmental catastrophes.

Faced with a document containing few concrete commitments and lots of vague aspirations it is understandable that many green NGOs and businesses have been left apoplectic at the text, some even going as far as to call for the first line stating that the agreement has been reached with the "full participation of civil society" to be scratched out. I have immense sympathy for George Monbiot's conclusion that the text represents nothing more than "283 paragraphs of fluff".

However, business leaders need to remember that despite the waves of entirely justified criticism there are important elements contained in the agreement that present significant risks and opportunities to their operations.

The statements may be vague and aspirational, there may be no concrete deadlines or action plans for delivering on them, but they have still been made. The vast majority of the commitments made in the text contain enough wriggle room that governments who do not want to embrace green policies can continue to soft pedal on the development of the low carbon economy. But 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.

Take the commitment to "acknowledge the importance of corporate sustainability reporting and encourage companies, where appropriate, especially publicly listed and large companies, to consider integrating sustainability information into their reporting cycle". You can easily argue the words "acknowledge" and "consider" makes this worthy statement meaningless. But ask yourself this: in the week that the UK government introduced the first mandatory carbon reporting regime for listed companies and Nasdaq and other stock markets embraced the "report or explain" principle of corporate sustainability performance for companies listed on their exchanges, do you really expect to see fewer environmental reporting requirements placed on your organisation over the next few years? Or will we see more countries follow the UK's lead?

More broadly, the text's statement that "we view the implementation of green economy policies by countries that seek to apply them for the transition towards sustainable development as a common undertaking" may be aspirational rather than prescriptional, but it gives yet more power to the shoulder of those governments and businesses that want to see green economic policies strengthened. As does the promise of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, even if the failure to set a deadline for agreeing them means this admirable idea may be permanently deferred.

The rhetoric might be fluffy, the commitments might be nebulous, but savvy business leader will take the Rio +20 as further evidence that clean technologies and the green economy have considerable political support and will continue to prosper.

Conversely, politicians might not yet have the nerve to sever their toxic links with carbon intensive industries, but the growing calls for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and the text's reaffirming of the commitment to "phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development" suggest this issue is not going to go away. Just as savvy business leaders with an eye to the long term will be cranking up their investment in more sustainable business models, they will also be asking if carbon intensive and environmentally damaging projects can continue to rely indefinitely on the munificence of policymakers.

Obviously, this is the message progressive politicians would like to spin from a text that is so poorly defined that it can be read as either the foundations of a global green economy or a betrayal of the planet we all rely on. But while there is undoubtedly an element of spin in these conclusions, businesses should be aware that the text could yet help deliver a significantly more ambitious green policy framework, particularly in jurisdictions like the EU and Japan who are now vocally committed to the concept of green growth.

There is also the potential for the Rio text to play into the theory that world leaders are working towards a genuinely ambitious package of sustainability policies to be adopted in 2015.

I've written on this loose timetable before and it is a schedule that a lot of influential players, including the EU and UK are working off. It runs something like this: former head of the UN climate change secretariat, Yvo de Boer, accurately attributed the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Summit to a lack of confidence among some countries that low carbon technologies really could deliver green growth for their populations. Therefore, the only way to end the permanent deadlock that characterises global environmental summits is to demonstrate that sustainable business models that do not undermine living standards are indeed possible. There are plenty of experts who predict that clean technologies (solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars etc) will become cost competitive and/or mainstream during the second half of this decade, hence last year's decision to push back a global climate change agreement until 2015 and this week's decision to delay the adoption of new Sustainable Development Goals, probably until the same date. As such, it is possible to envisage a scenario where by the end of 2015 the world has agreed to a binding international climate change treaty, a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, and the updating of the Millennium Development Goals.

It is an encouraging theory, and one that those few optimists still involved in the world's various environmental negotiating tracks cling to.

However, there are several major problems that undermine the chances of this timetable ever being realised. First, every timetable the international community ever sets itself is almost invariably missed. Secondly, 2015 may be the date we start to get some agreements, but it is also pretty much the date at which plenty of climate scientists reckon we will have already locked ourselves into some potentially catastrophic levels of warming. Thirdly, its success is predicated on the ability to prove once and for all to developing countries that clean technologies can work and you can decouple environmental impacts and economic growth. Fantastic progress is being made on this front with the kinds of businesses and technologies we report on everyday proving that sustainable development might just be possible, but they are still being hampered at every turn by vested interests, scientifically illiterate short termist politicians, and the absence in virtually every country of a genuinely joined-up and ambitious green policy landscape.

Even in a country with a genuine commitment to the green economy, such as the UK, there are countless examples of market failures or contradictory policies that act as a drag on green growth (as just one example, even as the EU is in Rio pushing for ambitious green policies, it emerged this week that the Commission is trying to stop the UK imposing a lower rate of VAT on green goods).

So what can be done? Even the most generous assessments of the Rio Summit (and believe me, I realise the assessment above is as generous as it is possible to get) leaves us relying on a remarkable transformation of the global economy over a three to eight year period if we are to have the faintest chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

The glib answer is nothing. Green businesses and NGOs simply have to head home and redouble their efforts, focusing all their time, energy, and resources on proving the effectiveness of clean technologies and business models. The one unanswerable plus point from Rio is that it has not in any way weakened the already compelling business case for investment in green technologies, a business case that has already made the green economy and renewable energy sectors the fastest growing parts of the global economy in recent years.

At a more practical level, Rio +20 surely has to be a tipping point of some sort. The point at which it dawns that this model of negotiation is not working. If, as Einstein famously observed, "insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results", the diplomats gathered in Rio are as mad as hatters.

I do not subscribe to the view that these types of summits are exercises in futility. The rhetoric may not deliver much in the way of practical action, but rhetoric has a value in setting out a direction of travel, while it is undoubtedly useful for those who fight for a more sustainable future to have an annual focal point. But there has to be a better way of doing things than the current diplomatic morass.

Perhaps, the answer lies in not trying to be more ambitious, but less. If we can now take it as a given that world leaders can agree vague commitments to tackle environmental threats, but not an overarching deal to tackle these threats, maybe 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.

The few positive aspects of the past week all centre on these types of agreements: the adoption of sustainable principles for the insurance industry, the £111bn of new green transport investment from development banks, the update on the impressive progress made by the UN's Sustainable Energy for All initiative, the commitment to accelerate work on developing a new measure for GDP that incorporates natural capital.

There are countless other prospective policy ideas that could deliver deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, while enabling sustainable development, and all of them would be easier to agree in isolation than as part of one sprawling mega-treaty.

Drawing on just a few examples off the top of my head, energy efficiency financing initiatives are a no-brainer that need global scale, as are public sector green procurement standards. Similarly, demanding energy and fuel efficiency standards for consumer goods and vehicles are proven, no-harm policies that could see their effectiveness multiplied if adopted at a global or multilateral level. The protection for the Arctic being demanded this week by Greenpeace is another good example, as is the mooted end to fossil fuel subsidies. The list goes on and on.

Make these kind of specific policy interventions and investment programmes the centre-piece of future negotiations and you both maximise your chances of success and negate the criticism that these summits never deliver concrete outcomes.

I appreciate this is all much easier said than, but it is equally clear that something has to change. As Einstein also once said in the face of a different sort of global catastrophe, "everything has changed except our way of thinking". The Rio +20 Summit has confirmed how little our thinking has changed in the past 20 years, and how urgent it now is to identify and follow those businesses who are tentatively mapping out the different ways of thinking we all desperately need.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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