This year has been one of those worst-of-years and best-of-years. In its failures, there are signs of hope.
Rio+20 may have ended more than three weeks ago, but the environmental and development communities are still feeling the disappointment. One of the biggest shortcomings was the lack of collaboration between citizen groups (the “grassroots”) and the policy research organizations that influence policymakers (the “grasstops”).
Where is the Steve Jobs of sustainability? The business leader with the big, disruptive ideas—and the force of will—to achieve for sustainable production and consumption what Apple’s visionary chief did for global technology and information?
More than a year ago, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon likened Rio+20 to a “free-market revolution for global sustainability,” calling for the event to inspire innovations that move the world toward more sustainable pathways to economic growth and development. Later in the year, U.N. Commission for Sustainable Development Chair, Sha Zukang, explained that the main difference of Rio+20 from earlier conferences “will be the sharp focus on renewing political commitments and on implementation…” Said Sha, “My message is: come to Rio ready to commit.”
Big business seemed to be everywhere at Rio+20, arguably more visible than the 100 or so heads of state and government, who arrived for the final few days.
Last week’s Rio+20 conference failed to yield strong sustainability commitments from corporations. As Manish Bapna, interim president of the World Resources Institute (WRI) stated earlier this week, companies in Rio didn’t “grasp the fundamental recognition that the planet is on an unsustainable course and the window for action is closing.” The gap between where we need to get to avoid climate change’s worst effects and the actions companies are willing to take to get us there have never been further apart. While governments have an important role to play in setting policies to reduce emissions, legislation on its own will never be enough to put us on a development trajectory that is sustainable. Leadership from business is urgently needed.