A few rays of hope at the Rio+20 jamboree

By all accounts, last month’s mega global jamboree Rio+20 has been expectedly labeled a huge failure. Few would have anticipated anything concrete to emerge, what with the precedent set by the string of similar spectacular failures at reaching consensus about dealing with the world’s interrelated environmental, social and economic problems at previous such mega jamborees in Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun and elsewhere.

The complexity and magnitude of these intimately connected problems among the peoples of the world are not only a challenge to comprehend in itself, but the competing forces driven by commercial, religious, economic and aspirational vested interests that influence them make them look like an unsolvable conundrum – at least in the manner and mechanisms in which the solutions are being sought today.

Previous conferences have repeatedly shown that multilateralism has failed. That was exactly the case at Rio+20 as well. Delegations from 188 countries including more than a hundred heads of state (minus the biggest of them all – Barack Obama) and some 45,000 delegates drawn from across all persuasions in life had little by way of anything concretely positive for the 4000 attending journalists to report to the world.

But it would be too early to treat Rio+20 as a complete write-off in the sense that previous such conferences were. There are a few reasons why. For one, the preparatory steps to Rio+20 took on board a grassroots approach. It had a system for information and communications technology infrastructure to involve the wider community. People from anywhere in the world could participate in pre-summit deliberations using simple web technology. Submissions, which could be made on a range of listed topics, were to be taken aboard for greater consideration in leaders’ deliberations.

It is not known how much this system contributed to the three day deliberations or if it added any value to the general discourse at all. There has been next to nothing about the workings of the system in post event news releases, so there is no knowing how useful it was. But the important point is that the very thought of such a process and the attempt to put it in place was a step in the right direction. For one thing that has not been attempted at previous conferences is a bottom up approach and this was the first time that there was a semblance of it.

At the end of Rio+20, however, no binding agreements were arrived at or signed on. None of the overarching commitments that have been repeatedly sought after at such mega events previously were to be seen. Rather, a feel good document was put out, with several initiatives agreed to, mostly informally, by the more serious minded and well meaning forces from all sectors including large business houses.

In fact it is these small measures that hold out any hope of achieving anything significant in moving towards sustainable practices in future human endeavour: more than a flicker hope for the growing collaborative movement across sectors for sustainable development. Some 700 commitments worth more than $500 billion were publicly announced at the summit. None of these are under any agreed upon framework but are by and large voluntary.

Other voluntary measures, which in some cases also had corporate and government support were initiatives like planting 100 million trees by the year 2017 to greening 10,000 square kilometers of desert – and empowering thousands of women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa.

This is a refreshingly bottom up approach rather than the ever elusive statutory, over-arching agreement approach that world leaders have been pursuing for the better part of two decades since the first Rio summit in 1992. All these conferences have been cast in the top down mould – driven by policy suitable to competing vested interests based on the holy grail of economic growth. Having done that, the idea was to then set about thinking up programmes that would fall under the top down policies – and finally finding funding to make them happen.

History tells us that tack has not worked. If at all it did, it was patchy. For instance, repeated earmarking of funding for adaptation and mitigation to counter climate change in countries and regions deemed most vulnerable, like Kiribati in the Pacific Islands region, at previous conferences has brought a mere trickle of assistance to the suffering regions, if at all.

If anything ought to work, it is this bottom up approach that will. That is because the people, NGOs, individuals and parties involved are bound together in their belief that something needs to be done seriously and the only way to do it is through a multi disciplinary approach rather than a multilateral one at top governmental levels. To borrow a phrase from an unsavoury historical context that was used in the Middle East by a former American President, the only thing that will work is a ‘coalition of the willing’.

The other positive outcome is the willingness shown by likeminded businesses that have come to realise that adopting sustainable practices in whatever they do is the only way forward. Sustainability has turned out to be the big mantra for businesses over the past decade or so and such bottom up initiatives will give impetus to more businesses across the board to adopt sustainable practices as they begin to realise that ultimately these practices have a positive effect on the bottom line.

The popularity of the idea will begin to evolve scales to ‘measure’ sustainability. That will be followed by standards and perhaps certification systems – all of which will add immensely to the aura of an enterprise both through the bottom line and through reputational value. After all, any human enterprise can make sense only if there a discernible gain is seen in it.

One way to achieve this is to put a value on sustainable practice. And that is perhaps the single most significant though informal outcomes of Rio+20: One of the innovative initiatives agreed to at last month’s event is Natural Capital Declaration. Its idea is to get as many layers and sectors of society across the world to agree to the idea of affixing an economic value on nature. This is in direct contrast to previous approaches that did not put an economic value on nature. This is a novel concept that will help measure sustainable strategies and therefore encourage businesses to develop them – not just because they are good for the environment but also because they promote profitability.

It is an idea whose time has come and if it gains critical mass, may well point the way ahead to a sustainable future.

First appeared in Islands Business, July 2012 as a opinion piece ‘We Say’