Firms want politicians to ‘take responsibility’ at Rio

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This article is part of our special report Rio+20: Charting a green future?.

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.”

Kris Gopalakrishnan, chairman of Business Action for Sustainable Development and executive co-chairman of Infosys, said in a statement from Rio:

 “We must have a new framework for cooperation where business, government and civil society are working together to create solutions that will solve real world problems. Rio+20 is one of the last windows of opportunity to act urgently, decisively and cooperatively on policy actions - including regulations - that enable business sustainability solutions at the necessary scale.”

The Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels group that monitors lobbying in the EU, said in a 19 June there is a risk of corporate “greenwash” at Rio.

“The corporate lobbying presence will reach new levels at Rio+20, but at the same time civil society groups will protest about the degree to which UN policy-making has been captured by industry. A growing coalition of critics has pointed to the close cooperation between UN agencies and large corporations, which imperils the UN's ability to pursue people-centred policies that effectively address the social and environmental crisis.”

Together with the Global Reporting Initiative and the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development, the WBCSD has backed a call for government leaders at Rio to encourage all companies to report their sustainability performance.

Ernst Ligteringen, chief executive of the Global Reporting Initiative, said: “For the past 15 years, leading companies have been reporting on their sustainability performance, benefiting the companies themselves, as well their diverse stakeholders and society. Today, thousands of companies release a sustainability report, and the number continues to grow year on year. At the 2002 Johannesburg conference, this practice was commended; the opportunity in Rio is to adopt policy to make this standard practice.”

The WBCSD announced ahead of the Rio+20 conference that global member companies - including CLP Holdings, GDF Suez and Unilever - have responded to its call to submit Commitments for the Future We Want, and to the UN Secretary-General’s recently launched Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative.

Andrew Brandler, chief executive of CLP, said: “To underscore our commitment to responsible and sustainable power generation, CLP established a Sustainability Framework that encompasses the economic, social and environmental dimensions of our operations. Two of our goals – to lower the carbon intensity of our generation portfolio by 75% between 2007 and 2050, and to have non-carbon emitting generation comprise 30% of our portfolio by 2020 – are part of our roadmap towards our ultimate aspiration of zero emissions. But we can’t do it alone: we need appropriate policy support at the international and national levels to sustain the progress we have made on contributing to a sustainable future.”

Gérard Mestrallet, chairman and chief executive of GDF Suez, said: “Business has a leading role in providing innovative solutions to the problems that our planet faces. As the world’s leading utility company, GDF Suez is strongly committed to the coming Rio +20 Conference and actions to create a green economy, access to sustainable energy, the optimisation of natural resources, and urban development. Thanks to its strong expertise and to the skills of its 220,000 employees spread over more than 70 countries, GDF Suez provides its clients with innovative and sustainable solutions.”

Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, said: “We welcome Commitments for the Future We Want, a key initiative that will help set the world on a firm course towards sustainability. Only by creating critical mass and working across the value chain will we be able to make significant progress. Unilever’s commitments focus on helping one billion people to improve their health and well being, sourcing 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably, improving the livelihoods of at least 500,000 small holder farmers in our supply chain and halving the environmental footprint of our products across the value chain, all by 2020.”

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development concludes on Friday (22 June). Billed as the largest-ever UN conference, it is taking place in Rio de Janeiro two decades after the first post-Cold War Earth Summit.

Weeks of preparatory discussions are expected to produce global pronouncements on food security, natural resource protections, clean energy and sustainable development.

But analysts expect few of the binding targets and commitments that European officials and activists had hoped for. For example, the EU is facing resistance from developing nations to advance it “green economy” ambitions fearing it would slow growth or impose restrictions on their own plans to grow out of poverty, while the United States opposes plans to strengthen the powers of the UN Environmental Programme.

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