The recent UN Conference on Sustainable Development (aka ‘Rio+20’) ended in disappointment. Possibly, the initial expectations were too high; maybe the scale of the event itself, the self-proclaimed “Earth Summit”, bringing together more heads of state and government leaders than any other global meeting (not to mention a long and varied list of companies and organizations), holds the promise of exceptional outcomes, leading, quite reasonably, to frustration when those outcomes fail to appear.
ACCIONA kept very close tabs on the Summit and was at the event to take part in a number of forums, and we believe that it is not too optimistic to say that Rio+20 came up with positive results; they may not be as ambitious as many of us had expected, but at least they make it clear that, 20 years after the milestone event in Rio in 1992, humankind continues to advance inexorably towards a sustainable development model offering a seamless blend of economic growth, social progress and environmental balance.
1. Twenty years is a long time. Unlike the well-known and eponymous tango, it is clear that over the past twenty years we have come a long way in raising awareness on a global scale of the need for sustainable development for the future. The difference between the “Environment and Development” slogan for the 1192 Rio event and the “Sustainable Development” one for Rio+20 is not just about semantics; it is clear that we now take a far broader view of a model of sustainable development which encompasses many aspects of life, such as human rights, universal access to water and energy, biodiversity, climate change and using the green economy to eradicate poverty. The Rio-92 conclusions included 27 articles; the Rio+20 outcome document “The world we want” has 283, which highlights the fact that there is a genuine, and growing, concern and that sustainable development has shifted from a marginal to a central issue on the international agenda.
2. From Romanticism to Pragmatism. The twenty years separating both Earth Summits have enabled us to see the enormous difficulties involved in taking this reality to the amiable swell of well-intentioned Romanticism that impregnated the movement in its early days. When the challenge facing us is no less than to take good care of the planet for the generations to come, it’s easy to understand that hash reality has taken the place of the naivety that crisscrossed the initial thoughts on the subject. Today we know that it is impossible to promote sustainable development taking a Romantic approach and that it calls for a sizeable dose of pragmatism. Our rhythms—political, business or societal—are not necessarily in synch with the planet’s. So, there’s a specific and pressing need to reconcile short-term objectives and the medium-long view which will enable us to act not only on the basis of business results and electoral outcomes, but also with our sights set on the needs of the not too distant future. Harsh though it may seem, this is something we must learn from the lessons of Rio+20 if we are to carry on the process in years to come.
3. Talk is not always a waste of time. The lack of binding commitments is the accusation most-frequently leveled at Rio+20, and quite rightly too. Some observers have even gone to the trouble of counting and comparing the number of times that the expressions “we encourage” (50) and “we will” (5) appear across the 53 pages that make up the summit’s outcome document.
The truth is that, to mention just one of the summit’s more controversial issues, it is very disappointing to see that while the International Energy Agency (IAE) insists repeatedly on the need to do away with subsidies for fossil fuels in an effort to put a brake on climate change, the Rio+20 outcome document limits itself to a simple declaration on its willingness to reaffirm the commitments to this issue undertaken by a number of countries and inviting others do follow suit. Incidentally, some of those subsidies were as high as 409,000 million US dollars in 2010, six times more than the incentives for renewable energies.
Accordingly, press headlines poked at the summit, calling it “a talking shop” (REM), and described the outcome document as 283 pages of “bluff” (The Guardian). However, it is important to understand that there is a lot of diplomacy involved in international summits, and that they call for considerable skill when it comes to meshing opinions and reaching a final consensus, however insubstantial it may seem. But that doesn’t make them a waste of time. Without a doubt mandatory commitments would have made Rio+20 a better summit. But discussing these issues at a global level can never be considered a sterile exercise; the ideas expressed in these events help to serve as a guide and make up the bedrock of future actions, possibly less ambitious though certainly more practical, at other levels of decision-making (national, regional or local).
4. There is life beyond politicians. It’s true that s Barak Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron were not among the 88 premiers and heads of state gathered in Rio+20, and that the summit’s level of political representation was negatively skewed as a result. On the other hand, though, there was a strong and very visible presence of business and civil society, which was both encouraging and promising. Although worldwide political consensus is important—and, sadly, it takes a long time to get there—it is no less important to see that sustainability is capable of attracting considerable human and economic capital, a powerful energy which we need to harness in our quest for real formulas for cooperation between the different players involved and to call for greater and more effective political agreement.
5. And don’t forget the small print. Despite being short on major political commitments, Rio+20 has delivered the goods in other aspects in the way of second-tier commitments and agreements which should not be looked down upon. A case in point: it is worth highlighting the important progress made on incorporating sustainability into corporate reporting. Britain’s vice-premier Nick Clegg announced that his country would require UK-listed companies to report not only on financials but also on social and environment indicators; ACCIONA has been doing this for many years with its Triple Bottom Line (economic and financial, social en environment).These measures are in line with the move towards stepping up corporate transparency and leads to a more exhaustive evaluation of companies by highlighting the externalities related to their activities and the latter’s effects on their social and environmental surroundings.
In short, now we’ve got over the Earth Summit’s initial disappointments, we all (governments, business and social organizations) need to learn from the lessons stemming from the summit and make a concerted effort to understand that despite the urgency to solve short term problems, however serious they are, we cannot take our eyes off the essential task of ensuring a sustainable future for one and all. Rio+40 will have a lot to say.
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