As world leaders fly into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the start of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, NGOs and environmentalists are decrying the weak draft language that the leaders are expected to approve at the end of the meeting. As every business student learns, you can’t improve what you don’t measure, and the draft released today is sorely lacking in metrics, benchmarks and quantified goals. The draft document contains 283 paragraphs that outline most decisively the problems that face humans on earth. It’s the actions to be taken to mitigate issues of poverty, inequity and environmental degradation that are unclear.
All Embracing Vagueness
All segments and interest groups, including indigenous people, workers and trade unions, corporations, farmers, NGOs, the science and tech community and young people are acknowledged in the draft…it is inclusive in its vagueness, while calling for attention and compliance with the myriad global agreements that have already been negotiated. Likewise, the litany of issues is comprehensive, from water use to toxic chemicals, from gender equity to access to healthcare. This systemic approach is desirable, but lack of mechanisms and benchmarks make the catalog of miseries seem insurmountable.
Response to the draft, which was posted by the Guardian, has been highly critical: Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director of Greenpeace, was firm: “The future we want has gotten a little further away today. Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy. … From the G20 to Rio+20 this is not a good week for people and the planet. While billions are being spent bailing out banks and billions more on subsidising the fossil fuel industry, its clear whose agenda our leaders are following, that of business as usual of polluting corporations.”
WWF Director General Jim Leape noted the weakened language and dim prospects: “Now it’s up to world leaders to get serious about sustainable development and save this process. If they approve what’s on the table now without significant changes, they’ve doomed Rio+20 to ridicule.” Leape continued: “While some weak words have been removed, diplomats have swapped them with toothless language. This includes tongue twisters like ‘commit to the progressive realization’ and several promises to ‘recognize’ problems and solutions. They’ve added some positive actions around oceans protection. But, the text has lots of words that ‘commit’ parties to nothing – such as ‘commit to promote’ and ‘commit to systematically consider.’”
A Conference on Sustainable Conferencing….
One frustrated commenter even created a fake press release, purportedly from the “United Nations Conference on Sustainable Discussions,” with tongue in cheek references to a spurious quote from a misnamed president of Brazil:“While some proposals discussed until now threatened to constitute a breakthrough and offer concrete solutions, our government has been decisive in ensuring that those are replaced with a language respecting the sustainability of our discussions.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the US delegation to the Rio conference; like the heads of state of the UK and Germany, President Obama has no plans to attend.
Multiple, Interconnected Problems
The draft does clarify, over and over, the absolute and necessary connections among poverty, justice and environmental stewardship, saying: “We recognize that poverty eradication, changing unsustainable and promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development.” Just as we cannot address poverty by helping everyone in the world to consume resources like an average American, we cannot save the plants and animals without consideration for the human species’ needs and place in the ecosystem.
Some points are sure to draw conservative criticism, such as the confirmation of the issue of climate change, “We acknowledge that climate change is a cross-cutting and persistent crisis and express our concern that the scale and gravity of the negative impacts of climate change affect all countries and undermine the ability of all countries, in particular, developing countries, to achieve sustainable development…”
Role of Business Called Out
The role of business in attaining — or impeding — sustainable development is recognized in several places in the draft, including a call for a different way to measure progress, beyond the simple counting of economic activity without regard for social or environmental consequence: “We recognize the need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP in order to better inform policy decisions” and how corporations report their progress: “We 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.”
While There’s Talk, There’s Hope?
Environmental journalist George Monbiot suggests the main reason that hopes are so low for this Rio Summit lies in the social power grab of the last two decades: “The past 20 years have been a billionaires’ banquet. At the behest of corporations and the ultra-rich, governments have removed the constraining decencies – the laws and regulations – which prevent one person from destroying another. To expect governments funded and appointed by this class to protect the biosphere and defend the poor is like expecting a lion to live on gazpacho.” And yet, yes, one cannot help hoping. As the Brazilian novelist Paolo Coelho has said, “The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” Let’s hope the negotiators in Rio can stay on their feet this week.
image via iStockphoto