Ambition at Rio+20 fails to meet business hopes

25th June 2012

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Natural resources ,
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Cambridge University's Margaret Adey, describes how world leaders' ambitions for action on sustainability in Rio lagged behind those of the private sector

When I left Rio last Thursday, demonstrators were already out in force at the conference centre, volubly expressing their disappointment against what they felt was a sell-out by negotiators at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

It’s clear the outcome document, “The future we want”, is unambitious and lacks political leadership, and while it contains many fine words, there are few tangible goals.

Essentially, we have been left with a document that sets out some promises with no clear programme of action.

Business leadership, however, seems much more forthcoming.

I was in Rio to present the Natural Capital Leadership Compact in which leaders of 15 prominent global companies, with a collective turnover of over US$350 billion, call for urgent action to properly value and maintain the Earth’s natural capital – those goods and services provided by nature on which the economy and society depend, such as biodiversity, carbon storage and the renewal of soil fertility.

The theme of natural capital featured strongly in business discussions at Rio. Private sector leaders see how the growing pressures on natural capital are generating a range of future risks and opportunities. Companies are building peer pressure that shows ambition and a desire for practical delivery.

The Natural Capital Leadership Compact, developed by companies within the Cambridge Natural Capital Leaders Platform, presents ambitious pledges by businesses to:

  • operate within the limits of natural capital;
  • identify and address impacts on people and the environment;
  • enable consumers to make better-informed choices; and
  • develop rigorous and realistic targets and plans in order to protect the natural environment and improve social equity.

These business leaders have called on governments to take policy leadership that will enable the wider adoption of business best practice. They urge governments to adopt a holistic policy framework that will include all stakeholders to promote sustainable resource use and to set a clear goal of no net loss to the environment.

So how does “The future we want” meet this business agenda for action? Our analysis of its contents in relation to the issues set out in the Leadership Compact shows that the document struggles to go beyond “acknowledging” the importance of sustainability issues.

While the text states that it “recognises” that action is fundamental, “underscores” the importance of governments taking a leadership role in developing policies and strategies through an inclusive and transparent process, its fine words lack clarity about implementation mechanisms and frameworks and clear specific actions.

Dr Margaret Adey is the development director of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership


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