Yes, there are things the Rio summit can accomplish

By Tensie Whelan and Paul Polman
June 21, 2012

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was marked by optimism and hope, but much of the buzz about the upcoming Rio+20 meeting is skeptical and cynical. Critics say the Rio process has been unduly bureaucratic and hasn’t lived up to its goals. They are branding Rio+20 as a failure before it has even begun. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are sitting it out. Some even say that in the radically decentralized Internet Age, the days when government leaders or U.N. bodies can set global agendas by fiat are long gone.

True, the Rio process itself has sensibly evolved away from government decree and turned toward the private sector to build a green economy that can implement sustainability on a global scale. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important things governments can do to make Rio’s goals a reality.

Many global businesses now recognize sustainability and equity as the only acceptable model of growth, and have adopted sustainable management of global supply chains as the “new normal.” In the years since the first Earth Summit, businesses and NGOs like ours have been working to scale up sustainable resource use and engage producers and communities worldwide. Unilever and hundreds of other global businesses are committed to sourcing 100 percent of the commodities they use from farms or forests independently certified by organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, the Forest Stewardship Council and commodity roundtables. Certified producers conserve resources and forests, protect habitats and biodiversity, and put livelihoods and communities on a sustainable, equitable footing.

Our efforts are quietly transforming global markets. Three percent of the world’s working forests, 10 percent of the world’s tea production and 15 percent of the world’s bananas are under sustainable management certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Ten percent of the entire global economy now operates under some form of sustainability standards. And these numbers are growing rapidly.

That’s some indication of how much the private sector and civil society can do to implement Rio’s goals by greening the global economy. But the world needs to speed the process up. Governments can create the conditions for that, including enforcing existing regulations, adopting sustainable procurement policies and providing incentives for sustainable production and consumption. Government policies enable the flow of investment in clean water, reforestation, soil management, better working conditions, schooling and worker training, and much else.

There are many examples of governments in both consumer and producer countries already using their power to do this. Wisconsin’s state government gives property tax breaks to landowners enrolled in certified sustainable forest management. Canada incentivized energy efficiency upgrades at pulp and paper plants. The Dutch government specifies certain types of sustainably produced products in their procurement guidelines. El Salvador provides export tax reductions on sustainably produced coffee. In Mexico, certified community-based forestry operations that meet international forest management standards are eligible for government grants to expand their business.

But there’s still a long way for governments to go. A recent study led by the Vance Center found that in the Americas, though many countries promulgated new sustainability incentives, very few got funded or promoted, and there was no consistency or focus on the most urgent problems.

Coordinating such efforts is a goal that Rio+20 can realistically accomplish. We urge the delegates to provide a framework to design and fund incentives for sustainable production and consumption – one that supports investments in environmental and social improvements. That could leverage billions in private-sector investment in sustainable products and services, creating positive impacts on water, biodiversity, climate, poverty and human health on a global scale.

Skeptics are right to argue that governments can’t accomplish Rio’s goals by themselves. But government is still critically important in helping economies get the incentives for sustainability right. We have seen firsthand how perverse incentives, lack of enforcement and uninformed markets stimulate unsustainable production practices. The world deserves better, and can have it if Rio encourages more governments to use their power to speed the rise of the global green economy.

PHOTO: An indigenous man talks into his transmitter before a meeting at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro June 21, 2012. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

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The focus of the Rio +20 summit was on a failing European economy, political instability in the Middle East, and the upcoming United States presidential campaign.

Developing countries see it as their right to catch up with the U.S.; meaning they don’t have to meet emissions standards.

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