Cadmus

Rio+20

9. The Outcomes: Coalitions of the Willing
Assumption Eight: Institutions in different countries find themselves having similar interests, goals, and capabilities that can translate into coordinated action.

Eight of the world’s big development banks are shifting their transportation investments ($175 billion – not new money) from road and highway construction to urban transport, including buses, trains, and bicycle lanes.

A “Natural Capital Declaration” put together by the Global Canopy Programme and the UN Environment Programme engaged 57 countries, banks, companies and investors to pledge to measure wealth in terms of natural capital. This puts a “green accounting system” into national and company accounts. The World Bank and 86 private companies signed on to ecosystem services (the value that air, water, forests, and ecosystems provide to the human economy). Signatories included China Merchants Bank, Puma, Dow Chemical, Unilever, and Mars.

Ban Ki-moon’s ‘Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL)’ initiative kicked off at Rio as well, with more than 50 governments planning together to achieve the three goals of the initiative: to ensure energy access for approximately two billion people who have no electricity, double the share of renewable energy and double energy efficiency. Key stakeholders, including governments, businesses, banks, civil society pledged $50 billion to achieve these goals by 2030.

Another group was there: the justices and prosecuting attorneys of many countries who were concerned about sustainable development, poverty, and human rights. I did not attend these sessions. But among the topics introduced was the possible criminalization of peacetime “ecocide” in the same treaty that already exists for wartime massive destruction of ecosystems. As far as I can tell, there was no agreement, and, indeed, no recommendation on making ecocide an international crime against humanity — not this year.

10. The Outcomes: Business
Assumption Nine: In the global economy, businesses have great scope and scale in delivering goods and services and, in many cases, greater flexibility and capability to deliver rapid change to the sustainability and climate change situation than governments or NGOs.

Businesses deliver around 60 – 70% of global GDP. They too were showing an increasing awareness of how the future would have to change. And they had the willingness to take action on climate change and sustainability. Here are three (of the hundreds) such announcements made at Rio.

Microsoft committed to going carbon neutral in its operations in over 100 countries.

Infosys, the big Indian computer and outsourcing services company, committed to reducing energy consumption by 50% and sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2018.

Bank of America has announced a ten year $50 billion fund for environmental investment.

The insurance companies of the world are beginning to realize their common interests and goals. At Rio+20, they got together as a group and released a set of principles of sustainable insurance. It is clear that insurance companies and reinsurance companies are carefully looking at the issues of climate change and sustainability with an intense focus on pricing risk. They will be reassessing annual insurance premiums for property damage and liability. And they have influence in the global economy. They control, some say, up to 7% of global assets.

It may be that we will look back on this public shift in business strategies as the major outcome of the Rio+20 conference.

11. The Outcomes: Science
Assumption Ten: Science in our civilization has the responsibility for observing, conceptualizing and reporting major processes and trends on the physical, social, economic, and cultural aspects of the planet. It delivers, with notable exceptions, dense, specialized, sometimes pretty obscure findings about the immense complexity of the planet that are barely comprehensible to people in other social institutions.

It was science that got this whole enterprise going in the first place. Rio+20 was initiated and energized as a result of what science has been discovering and saying for the past 40 years. And the scientists, meeting a few days before the meeting, did not disappoint. For the most part, they gave us complex, lengthy appraisals of the physical situation, clouded with caution about uncertainties and unknowns and notice of the “need for further research.”

Well, these are our human institutions. They were all present at Rio+20. They were all there delivering what they could deliver – not more, not less.

So, Rio+20 gave us an opportunity to see what human institutions, as now constituted, could deliver in the face of perhaps the greatest challenge ever to face humanity and an accelerating, potential global disaster. As the Declaration said, “We reaffirm that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we express profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally. We are deeply concerned that all countries, particularly developing countries, are vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, and are already experiencing increased impacts including persistent drought and extreme weather events, sea level rise, coastal erosion and ocean acidification, further threatening food security and efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development” (para. 190).

Greater awareness was present at Rio+20. What is hard to assess coherently is the overall level of global awareness that might lead to continued effective action.

12. Another Lens – Perhaps a Global “Movement” Slowly Coalescing
Speaker after speaker assured their audiences — as if in a ritual — that sustainability was the most important thing for those gathered to agree upon.

And the whole audience nodded. The message was repeated in panel after panel.

And almost all speakers exhorted the assembled that the most important thing to do was to “collaborate.” And, it appeared to me, the audience nodded. At one point, I thought that “collaborate” was the most-used word at the conference, almost beyond the endless repetition of the word “sustainable.”

What was happening here? What is to be made of such rituals?

Assumption Eleven: We are a groupish species. We need to know that our closest community agrees with us and us with them.

And any major change in our group direction needs to have lots of this kind of agreement. We need to hear our group leaders say what they (and we) are thinking about our purposes and goals. And, after that we can get busy on the actions we are able to take responsibility for.

I am struggling here to find the right words to describe what seemed to be happening among the 50,000 people assembled. There was a growing sense of identity, of “we” are all in this together. But what do we “call” ourselves? Are we a “movement?” Do we have the potential power of a global movement? Huge numbers of the 50,000 people assembled represented whole organizations that were part of this “we.” Some of the business executives there lead organizations with a hundred thousand workers and more. There was a wider sense of “shared identity” happening.

But, one of the things largely missing from the gathering is something that Rio, the city, is known for – the elements of the carnival. What was hard to find at Rio+20 were massive art works – like the floats and huge beautifully costumed dancing, singing groups. What was missing was that kind of ritual that bonds people together in another way than rhetoric from panel discussions and speeches. What was missing was a signature song, like “We shall overcome” that served the American Civil Rights Movement so well. We were like fans at a football game without a crowd cheer.

All this is the kind of thing that is hard to assess – even at a meeting like Rio+20. How big is the movement? How fast is it growing? How much agreement is actually there? What is its shape — in scope and scale? How powerful is it? How powerful could it become? How do we forecast the progress it will make? Will the movement achieve its goals within the timeframe that scientists have sketched out for planetary civilization? Those are questions I did not hear discussed at Rio+20.


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