Private sector ambition outstrips leaders' at Rio

18th July 2012


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Global consumer goods manufacturers and finance houses have been praised for doing more to drive the sustainable development agenda than world leaders, following the conclusion of the Rio+20 Earth summit

More than 700 voluntary commitments, worth hundreds of billions of pounds, were made by private sector firms, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and national administrations at the fringe events that ran alongside the main UN conference held at the end of June.

While environment campaigning groups, including WWF and Friends of the Earth, strongly criticised the formal outcome of the summit as weak-willed and lacking in ambition, commentators argued that organisations meeting away from the main political negotiations were making strides forward in tackling the issues of sustainable production and consumption.

“The 3,000 side events are where the energy, the momentum, the inspiration and the aspiration lay in Rio,” confirmed David Symons, director at WSP Environment & Energy. “That’s where all the ideas and commitments were coming from .... [and] it shows us where the movement is going to be in the future.”

Formal commitments include:

  • a new partnership between the US government and the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which represents more than 400 retailers and manufacturers, to work together on eliminating deforestation from CGF members’ supply chains by 2020; and
  • firms such as Puma, Unilever and Dow joining 39 banks and 50 national governments in signing the Natural Capital Declaration – a promise to work towards integrating natural capital considerations into products and services.

Peter Boyd, chief operations officer at the Carbon War Room NGO, who attended the summit, told delegates at the Green Corporate Energy conference the following week: “In Rio there was despair over the words of the final text – which were of the lowest common denominator – and despair over the culture of professional negotiation, but people were there and they were making deals.

Climate change is an area where business and governments can work together, and businesses have to step up because governments can’t.”

The formal output document signed by all 190 countries, entitled “The future we want”, was criticised for merely acknowledging the existence of sustainability issues.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, admitted the final outcome would “disappoint and frustrate many”.

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