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Is Rio+20 the way the world ends — with a whimper?

by Stephen Hesse

Last month, more than 45,000 people descended on Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

Coming 20 years after the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held there in 1992 (which was generally referred to as the Rio Earth Summit), Rio+20 — as the event held from June 20-22 is known — was attended by 100 heads of state, 188 national delegations, 12,000 delegates and 9,856 NGOs and other groups.

According to the U.N. secretariat for the conference, its purpose was to give nations an opportunity “to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development and address new and emerging challenges” — as well as to negotiate principles for the establishment of a global “green economy” to ensure planetary sustainable development.

Long before the doors opened, however, hopes began to fade. And in the end, though little was expected, even less was achieved.

Among the well-informed media, George Monbiot of The Guardian was particularly scathing. On June 25 he wrote in his blog:

“It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations — the United States, the U.K., Germany, Russia — could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: 16 times in their text they pledged to pursue ‘sustained growth,’ the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.”

On the same day, Canada’s leading environmentalist, David Suzuki, voiced similar disdain in an interview with Amy Goodman of the global news program “Democracy Now.”

“We’re going backwards. … Overall, the science is in: the planet is in terrible shape. And the difficulty is that meetings like this are doomed to fail, because we see ourselves at the center of everything, and our political and our economic priorities have to dominate over everything else,” Suzuki lamented.

“The green economy is just about being more efficient, being less polluting, being less energy-intensive, but still it’s a system built on the need to continue to expand and grow,” he noted. “The true economy has got to come back into balance with the very biosphere that sustains us. And I think a lot of people just see the green economy as a different way of allowing the corporate agenda to continue to flourish.”

In 1992, a handful of my colleagues and acquaintances attended the first Earth Summit. This time, only one made it to Rio: Tomohiko Yamaguchi, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) consultant with Cre-en, a Tokyo firm that offers CSR management services, including socially responsible annual reporting and public disclosure guidance, to Japanese corporations.

Below are his observations from Rio, based on questions I asked him.

Why did you go to Rio+20?

I went to see whether participants could reach agreement and how their decisions would affect companies in the future.

What were your expectations?

In the lead-up to the conference, the general consensus was that there wouldn’t be any concrete, tangible results, and therefore we didn’t expect much.

However, I was personally interested in what would be discussed at the “Green Economy” talks, and, whether delegates would be able to decide on the creation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I was very pleased to see representatives of the developed nations and ones from the Group of 77 developing nations (G77) debating the concept of a global Green Economy. I was also pleased when they agreed to develop new SDGs to replace the U.N. Millennium Development Goals [first laid out in 2000].

What did you observe?

First, in the Green Economy discussions, the G77 representatives argued for the final document to state, “Developed nations should change their lifestyles.” Of course the representatives from the developed nations strongly opposed this.

As a result, the discussions came to an abrupt halt. Later, though, after further negotiations in the committee Secretariat, the G77 reps agreed to drop the statement.

I was very disappointed by this, as I felt it would have been better for the future of sustainable development if the conference had failed — but I’ll get back to this.

Second, concerning the SDGs, it was surprising and innovative that negotiators decided to set social, environmental and economic indicators to measure what is needed to create a sustainable society.

To a greater or lesser degree, these SDGs will eventually be reflected in the domestic laws of most nations. After this, corporations and individuals will start taking action. Nevertheless, considerable negotiation will be needed and we will all need to work diligently to set high standards and goals.

Why did you say it might have been better if the conference failed?

As you know, the conference reached a deadlock because of the conflict between the developed countries and the G77 nations. If the parties had failed to reach agreement, the world would have taken notice, and I think both sides would have become more positive to work toward a future compromise.

All the developed nations hoped to limit their fiscal responsibility because of the financial crisis they are facing. On the other hand, the developing countries wanted to gain more concrete economic and policy concessions by taking advantage of public pressure on the developed nations.

Sadly, the outcomes of Rio+20 were minimal. Hence, the entire world population has lost this chance for fundamental and substantial deliberation of sustainability.

Did you learn anything that has specific relevance for Japan and Japanese CSR?

In Japan, we are already using the ISO26000 standards as Social Responsibility Indicators to guide CSR. The next step is to set numerical goals using the SDGs and pass these into domestic laws to guide corporate activities.

But Japanese companies should not sit and wait; they should call on the United Nations to create more favorable SDGs. The more they advocate, the better the SDGs that will be adopted.

What are the global trends in CSR?

Increasingly the focus of the world is shifting toward the developing countries. “Human rights” is a keyword reflected in this trend, and this is a primary concern of CSR today. However, Japanese companies are not yet grasping this situation.

What are the CSR trends in Japanese companies, both domestic and overseas?

Japanese companies don’t have really serious problems because they are doing okay domestically. But on the developing nation side of the supply chain, there are people living under severe conditions. How to deal with this situation is the most urgent issue at the moment.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese CSR?

Determining their own parameters of focus and working within those parameters is the most notable characteristic of Japanese individuals and companies.

However, once they recognize that they have stepped beyond their comfortable zone, it is as if they are staring into a fog and they become incapacitated. This is the weakness of Japanese companies. And for Japanese companies aiming to become global corporations, this tendency could lead them to believe their weaknesses are 100 times greater than their strengths.

What direction(s) would you like firms in Japan to take in terms of CSR?

One of Japan’s strengths is its sensitivity and sense of delicacy toward lovely things. Using this strength we could create organizational management systems that capture this delicacy and put it to work. I believe this could be a valuable contribution to the global business world.

Do you have any recommendations for government policies related to CSR?

I believe the Japanese government must work toward setting strict SDGs.

Do you have any suggestions and advice for young people interested in careers in sustainability and CSR?

Developed countries need to lower their daily consumption levels, and developing countries must put much more focus on preparing basic education and constraining growing populations. But discussing these two issues has become taboo globally.

The only people now who can raise their voices on these issues are the young generations who are going to be affected by overconsumption and overpopulation in the future. We urgently need a worldwide alliance of young people to challenge the status quo in order to solve these issues.

Special thanks to two members of those young generations, Chuo University law students Natsumi Gonno and Miwa Okajima, for their help writing this column. Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com.