Two days after the Río+20 summit came to a close, on 24 June, news of the event barely took up four paragraphs in the Santiago de Chile daily “El Mercurio” and failed to make the pages of the International Herald Tribune. Ten days later, media interest in Rio+20 has all but disappeared, apart from an incident involving some crafty Rio de Janeiro villains who made off with money and documents belonging to Niger’s Education delegate. She was prevented from boarding her flight home and she’s still at a loose end in Rio enjoying the hospitality of a local translator. For its part, Rio’s foremost daily and Brazil’s number two in circulation terms, “O Globo”, held on 3 July a seminar on “Rio+20: The Legacy”, with Brazil’s Environment Minister, Ms. Isabella Teixeira, as guest speaker.
But what kind of legacy has Rio+20 left behind? The following five issues might point us in the right direction:
The first part of this Legacy that we need to look at is our own perception of the phenomenon: Rio+20 has come to represent the consecration of a certain type of narrative on sustainability:
Media are neither innocuous nor neutral where climate change is concerned and, possibly influenced by the parallel forum, the so-called “People’s Summit”, held on the other side of Rio and which called into question the role of business as a provider of sustainable development solutions, the media mirrored discontent and ire in statements such as “Rio summit closes among criticism for the weak accord without clear and measurable targets”; “failure for want of ambition”; leaders “did not take on the responsibility to impose actions, targets and schedules”; the result is “an abstract document far-removed from reality”, and so on.
The role of the media is not being taken into account in the perception and the speed required for change. In response to O Globo, Rajendra Pachauri pointed out that “a change in perception, priorities and direction is called for”. This process of change requires a huge communication effort in which media cannot be content to stand in the wings. Basically, some media appear to be more concerned with dishing up controversy than presenting the cold facts, and this favors the climate change negationist fraternity, as pointed out in the recently published “The Inquisition of Climate Science” which deals with the role of the media in the face of climate change.
Legacy number two comes in the shape of the progress made thus far. We can safely say that Rio+20 was definitely not a place for people who like jumping to conclusions, but, nonetheless, conclusions there were, namely:
In the first place, Rio+20 gives us an overall document which, in the words of the WBCSD’s new Chairman, Peter Bakker “confirms that the world still has a platform for seeking out shared solutions”. He goes on to say that “had it not been so, it would have been extremely hard to convey a message underscoring the urgent need for sustainability and the changes required”. We’re making progress but, to paraphrase Bakker, “surmounting a global emergency by means of a multilateral process, which involves getting 193 countries to agree on a text, is something from which we cannot expect miracles”. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said only a few days ago “this agreement is a triumph of multilateralism”.
Thirdly, Rio+20 acknowledges and calls on companies to play a relevant role in achieving Sustainable Development, and highlights three aspects of the contribution that can be made by the business community: innovation, collaboration agreements and advising governments with recommendations on policy decisions, as explained in the Global Compact document “Overview & Outcomes” on the conclusions of the Corporate Sustainability Forum, an event held just days after the official Rio summit. This second legacy, however, turns out to be a double-edged sword: although it recognizes the private sector’s capacities and resources for innovation, collaboration and policy recommendations and puts the onus of responsibility for them on companies, there is no sign of companies’ official capability to influence those policies and regulatory frameworks, without which any recommendation is just a waste of breath.
In the fourth place, the clear overlap of the Rio summit’s three relevant final documents: The Future we Want, the official document signed by heads of state; Overview & Outcomes, the document that emerged from the Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum and, undoubtedly representative despite coming out prior to the summit, the WBCSD’s Changing Pace. All three of them, using more or less decorative prose, call for and acknowledge the need for urgent action on climate change and the private sector’s relevant role, and stress the importance of listening to all the parties involved in arriving at policies aimed at implementing measures. This overlap takes the focus off private sector participation and directs it at Sustainable Development. It would be a good thing if these organizations were to work together and coordinate their efforts (they are, after all, the first ones to call for such efforts) and thus gain in efficiency.
Fifth, Rio+20 leaves us with the feeling that the call for collaboration between governments, companies and civil society and the trend among the more forward-thinking companies* to adopt initiatives and not expect too much in the way of major accords, is swelling its ranks and more quickly than appearances would have us believe, with more and more companies and organizations getting directly involved in sustainable development. In recent years, the number of companies with Sustainability strategies in place has grown four-fold. And so we come away from Rio+20 with the feeling that we could be on the verge of a sea-change and that there is hope for a real shift.
*In this case “progressive companies” are those which have committed to and defend a certain way of doing business and are convinced of the need to take into account social and environmental factors when it comes to exercising their responsibility, and which actively and publicly participate in favor of policy changes aimed at fighting climate change, ensuring a carbon-free economy and striving for a planet fit for future generations.