The one upside of a 24 hour trip home from Rio+20 (filled with delayed flights, missed connections, mediocre airport food and a vicious oncoming head cold), is that you have plenty of time to reflect. While my head was increasingly fuzzy, my thoughts were crystal clear: I came away from this conference (The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) optimistic, more so than I was after the Cancun Climate Change Conference in 2010.
Surprised? Me too, actually. Let me explain. In 2010, governments didn't accomplish anything substantial to combat climate change and promote sustainability (not that anybody was expecting them to) and businesses, while interested and engaged, were still vainly waiting for governments to provide leadership and set the ground rules. Therefore, while businesses were doing interesting and some very important things, I didn't get a sense that there was significant leadership. Cut to Rio. Governments again didn't do anything meaningful (not that anybody was expecting them to). But this time businesses and NGOs were prepared and took up the mantle of leadership. They haven't been waiting around. Rather they came to Rio with serious, collaborative commitments to action.
Governments Abdicate Leadership Role on Sustainability
Let's start with the bad news. There was really no serious progress amongst governments when it came to the issues of climate change and sustainability. For a myriad of political and economic reasons, the negotiators at the conference had their hands tied and were not really given the green light to accomplish anything meaningful. It was also clear that there is a real and unfilled vacuum left by America's lack of leadership on this issue. As the International edition of the New York Times sums up the results of the conference:
The final statement from Rio, "The Future We Want," is 283 paragraphs of kumbaya that "affirm," "recognize," "underscore," "urge" and "acknowledge" seemingly every green initiative and environmental problem from water crises and creeping deserts to climate change and overfishing. Women's rights, indigenous peoples, children, mining, tourism, trade unions and the elderly also get shout-outs in the document.
The word "reaffirm" is used 60 times.
As Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace international said, "it was a failure of epic proportions." He summed up the final document by calling it "the longest suicide note in history".
Businesses, NGOs Step Up
Corporations and NGOs were at Rio+20 in force, highlighting progress, sharing ideas and demanding action. Understanding that they could no longer wait for governments to address the global challenges, corporations like Dow, Disney, Microsoft, Intel, GE, Unilever, Coke and many others, along with NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, The Climate Group, The World Wildlife Fund stepped up with major commitment, many of which I've covered here. Some other tidbits picked up during the sessions I sat in and conversations I had include:
- Disney and Microsoft both have instituted an internal carbon tax and are using the proceeds to fund additional sustainability initiatives
- Unilever has abolished quarterly guidance and quarterly reporting inside the company as CEO Paul Polman believes it diverts company focus from creating long-term value
- Intel has scientists working on energy harvesting technology from ambient heat and a body's electrical current so that cell phones won't need to be charged as often
As inspiring as this is, I don't want to gloss over the fact that businesses and NGO's were - and are - still loudly calling for government action. Without guidance, structure and price signals (like a price on carbon), we are not going to reach the scale we need to create true, lasting progress.
Finally, I thought I would share a video recently released by the Corporate Eco Forum covering their most recent winners of the CK Prahalad Award (Unilever, The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and Neil Hawkins from Dow Chemical). These are true leaders, and we need more of em. As Rob Swan said, "The greatest threat to the future of our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."