SPECIAL REPORT / Conservationists who fear that the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro will fail to produce binding commitments to environmental sustainability may have some unsuspecting allies – big corporations.

Some of the world’s leading business groups and companies say the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which began yesterday (20 June), should set the stage for clear targets on energy and greener development.

“We are very concerned about the lack of ambition and the lack of drive here amongst the international community to make the change,” Peter Paul Van De Wijs, a managing director of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), said by telephone from Rio.

Referring to epic showdowns in the European Union over mandatory energy efficiency standards and reducing fossil fuel use, Van De Wijs echoed environmentalists’ concerns that the Rio meeting will generate more rhetoric than substance.

“There’s too much political positioning in these discussions rather than taking a broader society view and to take responsibly,” said Van De Wijs, who formerly headed Dow Chemical’s water global water strategy team. “That’s why it’s quite unique that businesses here are calling directly for more targets, more action and smarter regulation.”

All talk, no action?

Billed as the largest-ever UN conference and coming two decades after the first post-Cold War Earth Summit, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro are likely to issue pronouncements on food security and energy. A draft of the conclusions, "The Future We Want", contains few of the binding targets and commitments that European officials and ecology activists had hoped for.

“If you want to achieve something in life, you’ve got to set end goals but also milestones, otherwise it remains talk,” Jan Zijderveld, president of Unilever’s Western Europe operations, said in a recent interview.

Without targets, he said, “how do you measure success? How do you know how well you’re doing? How do you hold people accountable for achieving or not achieving it?”

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum – representing 1,000 of the worlds biggest companies – urged governments meeting in Rio to develop “ambitious, universal and equitable goals for sustainable development” and to vest more in public-private solutions to development and ecological challenges.

Just greenwash?

Yet some campaign groups don’t buy into the big business line at Rio.

Friends of the Earth, a global conservation organisation, has launched a petition drive to counter business pressure on the United Nations to endorse market-based solutions to development challenges.

The Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels group that monitors lobbying in the EU, accused businesses of a “lobbying offensive” at the 2002 Johannesburg Earth Summit and warned of “unprecedented levels of industry activity” at Rio.

“Industry presented [at Johannesburg] a flood of voluntary initiatives, which had been taken to address social and environmental problems,” the group said in a statement on the eve of the Rio+20 meeting. “This propaganda show had the desired impact of greenwashing the image of companies whose activities were and are far from sustainable or socially responsible.”

Governments can’t do it all

Some experts say regardless of what emerges from the Rio conference, the magnitude of the challenge in tackling a rising population and growing demand for natural resources will take more than government action.

“The scale of the problem is such that all countries have to be designing institutions and policy mechanisms which send a signal to all people, all resource users, that these resources are scare, that the environment doesn’t have the absorption capacity and we need to live more efficiently,” said Simon Upton, the environmental director for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“That whole consumer side, that’s what drive the economy, that’s where the messages have got to get through. It’s not just a government thing.”

For Unilever’s top executive in Europe, businesses must be prepared to do more to protect resources.

“The traditional institutions that used to look after these sorts of things – governments – actually are failing to pull it together, whether it was the Copenhagen [climate] accord or any of these other big events,” Zijderveld told EurActiv in an interview.

He said corporations need to find “a new way” to grow and make a profit. “But with all these challenges that the world faces - basically due to scarcity, scarcity of water, scarcity of food – we need to take our responsibility and need to develop a new business model.”