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Rio + 20: Things Have Changed And It’s Necessary To Go Beyond Intentions

As Rio +20 approaches, drawing attention to the idea that a Sustainable Economy is possible, business leaders must have a key role in the discussions and  be called upon to take action.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also referred to as Rio+20, will take place in Rio de Janeiro this coming June, marking the 20th anniversary of the also Rio-based 1992 UN Conference on Environmental and Development (Eco 92). Rio +20 will give us all a chance to evaluate the strides of the last two decades. And the conclusion, we already know, will be that world society has to draw tangible goals and measures to really scale and push a sustainability implementation agenda lead by businesses and civil society, not only governments.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years. During Eco 92, Brazil was in the middle of an economic downturn and Rio de Janeiro was living a mix of recession, lack of perspective, rise in violence and acute social inequalities.

At the time, sustainable development was a kind of discussion that stayed just at UN and government circles. Then, NGOs were labeled “tree huggers” that pointed a finger at corporations as the enemy. Today, both are willing to sit at the same table to develop alternatives together.

At Eco 92, very important practical decisions were made, namely the adoption of Agenda 21 (an agenda for environment and development in the 21st Century), the agreements that reached the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which laid the ground work for action. Nonetheless, the business sector wasn’t a real actor and business leaders weren´t really involved in the main conversations.

Twenty years later, Brazil is a different country and Rio is a different city. Despite world economic crisis’, the Brazilian economy is advancing and just passed the UK to become the world’s 6th largest economy. Obviously, this economic growth is not necessarily an indicator of improving quality of life, as we well know. Nevertheless, Brazil’s poverty rate has reduced significantly and in just the past five years 30 million Brazilians (17.6% of the population) has joined the middle class. The average Brazilian worker income has increased from US $3,700/year in 2000 to US $9,720/year at the end of 2010. During the same period the income of the poorest 10% of Brazilians increased 8% per year against the richest individuals’ income which increased only 1.5%.

Rio de Janeiro, a microcosm of the Brazilian scenario, has attracted new investments through newly discovered oil deposits. As the World Cup and Olympic Games approach, investments in infrastructure are booming. Yet, only 1% of all the garbage produced in the city is recycled. Targets for 2015 are to increase  that number to 5%.

Despite that, research conducted in 2010 by Instituto Akatu, a Brazilian NGO that promotes conscious consumption, showed that only 5% of Brazilians are classified as conscientious consumers and that 56% have never heard the term sustainability. This is one of Brazil’s biggest challenges, which illustrates the emerging economies´ reality: how to grow and  be inclusive while supporting sustainable production and consumption standards.

Another big challenge in Brazil is how to create a political framework that recognizes the importance of forest and biodiversity preservation. The Brazilian government, which has such a key role to play at Rio +20, has showed signs of neglect related to a very controversial new forest management law. Many Brazilian environmentalist organizations, including WWF Brazil, recently circulated a letter criticizing President Dilma’s environmental agenda, which they judge as very inconsistent.

Business perspectives on sustainability issues have also changed radically in the last twenty years. At Rio +20, business leaders, including Brazilian business leaders, expect to take part in both the official discussion (especially through Business Action Sustainable Development – BASD[1]) and at a large number of official and parallel activities that will happen at many different venues throughout the city.

Nobody knows if there will be any concrete results from the official conference. But businesses will have to build effective answers to the challenges of renewable energy and climate change, social development, finance of sustainable development, among others. Companies will be pushed toward agreements and will feel significant social pressure, especially because they are an important part of the solution. They should take the chance to learn by sharing dialogue with civil society,governments, and becoming part of concrete platforms for action and change.

The sustainable economy is one of the major issues to be discussed at Rio +20, which speaks directly to businesses. Companies have already been called forth to collaborate in finding solutions (see the “first draft” document http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/futurewewant.html#IIIc), and  have a very important role in making changes and innovations towards a sustainable economy possible. These changes include investments in new technologies, research and delivery, products, services and green jobs. They will be called to propose concrete goals and benchmarks of progress and to work closely with governments and civil society at the regional, national and local levels.

The conference will be a historic moment for business leaders to take the lead in presenting sustainability-oriented actions and market-based solutions to accelerate business efforts to a more sustainable world.

Business leaders’ presence at the Conference (and public expectation in general) give some idea of what Rio + 20 will look like. The two main international business meetings hosted by the BASD -- The Corporate Sustainability Forum and the BASD Business Day -- , expect to attract over two thousand leaders. The World Green Summit, another big parallel event, expects to receive upwards of one thousand people from the business, finance and government communities.  Major Brazilian and international companies are supporting the official and parallel events, investing resources in order to have their place at the discussions.

One hundred state leaders have already confirmed attendance to the official conference. More than fifty thousand delegates are expected to take part in the official discussion. The parallel events expect to reach twice as many people, with projections of upwards of a hundred thousand people.

But it is not just because of high attendance numbers and good intentions that this historical moment will be remembered. As the country and the city that will host the conference, business leaders also have the enormous challenge to integrate intentions and rhetoric with concrete and effective change. Businesses have a unique opportunity to show coherence and come up with achievable, measurable goals and mechanisms to scale and accelerate those actions.

Discussion. Engagement. Implementation. Change.  That’s what is expected at Rio + 20. Nothing is sure except the need to be here and take part in this historical moment. Is your company ready?

 * In collaboration with my colleague Alice do Valle


[1] BASD it’s a join initiative from World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), International chamber of commerce (ICC) and UN Global Compact. BASD is who Represent business and industry sectors at the UN official discussions and coordinate the business input to the formal Rio+20 process.


Pablo Barros is founder and director of Eight Sustainability Platform, which started up in 2012. Eight’s work is based on the partnership model, cooperating with its partners to find solutions for global sustainability issues and its clients, while… [Read more about Pablo Barros]


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