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Revolution at Rio


ELIZABETH THOMPSON

Executive Coordinator Rio+20 Conference

“We can’t solve problems”, said Albert Einstein, “by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” His warning is very relevant as world leaders consider how to construct multilateral approaches and solutions to surmount the social, environmental and economic challenges facing humanity. As Rio+20 approaches, they have a rare opportunity to adopt the revolutionary thinking needed to craft solutions for change and chart a new path of sustainable development for countries, citizens, communities, companies — and Planet Earth

Rio+20’s “Zero Draft” — which will form the basis of the negotiating text — was released on January 10th after a transparent process which published all submissions online. Writing it was an enormous task, involving distilling and capturing the essence of those documents, faithfully following the submissions of member-states, injecting the text with all the important elements, finding language which did not conflict with previous multilateral agreements or offend any geopolitical grouping, and deciding what length of document best achieved all these objectives without exceeding practical functionality.

Member-states must now lift this draft to a higher level by transforming it into an ambitious platform for sustainable development, catalysing a global Green Economy. As the Secretary General of the United Nations says: “to make sustainable development happen we have to be prepared to make major changes — in our lifestyles, our economic models, our social organization, and our political life… We need … Revolutionary thinking. Revolutionary action.”

The Rio+20 Outcome must simultaneously serve multiple interests. It must respect the North’s industrialisation and desire for continued growth and satisfy the South’s development needs and nuances. It needs to assure large emerging economies that their development trajectories will not be halted or present gains reversed.

It should present LDCs, SIDS and Africa with new opportunities to bolster development prospects. And it will be expected to increase the resilience of middle income countries to cope with disasters and crises.

Rio should promote positive South- South and triangular collaborations and establish effective partnerships between governments and private sectors. It should identify the financial resources that the more vulnerable developing countries will need to effect the transition and create a more stable and sustainable global economic system. It must find a list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) around which all can coalesce. Even, more important, it must challenge politicians to consider development beyond the narrow political cycle. Put succinctly, the Rio Outcome, together with the Report of the Secretary General’s Global Sustainability Panel (High Level Panel), must craft “the future we want” for the people and planet. This may be a tall order, but – as Nelson Mandela has told us — “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Despite Agenda 21, a universally accepted definition of sustainable development, and keenly pursued Millennium Development Goals, poverty has not been eradicated. There must therefore be a renewed global effort to end poverty and achieve social equity and justice. Member-states are expressing a strong desire to enhance the institutional framework’s effectiveness in implementing sustainable development; this involves addressing several questions:

  • Given their importance and impact on growth, why have sustainable development issues remained the province of environmental ministries rather than being embraced by heads of government and ministries of finance/economic affairs?
  • How can the multilateral system and international development institutions function more efficiently, effectively and collaboratively to deliver global sustainable development?
  • To what extent will appropriate national structures need to evolve to complement, and deliver, on the multilateral sustainable development agenda?
  • What policies, strategies and mechanisms are essential to mainstreaming sustainable development?
  • How can understanding that environmental and economic issues are synonymous be reinforced at the highest levels of government and business?
  • How do we best demonstrate to business that sustainability equals profitability?

Recent social uprisings, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, have represented citizens’ calls for greater equity, sustained well being, greater involvement in their governance and a fair share in the benefits of globalisation. The near complete inability of both North and South to escape the contagious food, fuel and finance crises has served to emphasize the interconnection of economy, environment and society – or, as some express it, “people, planet, profit/prosperity”. There may be differences over the definition of the Green Economy, its potential for universal application and its capacity for transformation – but it must be conceded that the status quo has not produced the needed development solutions. New approaches must be tried to allow us to prosper while living within planetary boundaries.

Governments have a critical leadership role in mainstreaming and practising sustainability. However, the transition to a global Green Economy will not be possible without the constructive engagement of non-state actors and the involvement and cooperation of the private sector; especially if, as Naomi Klein contends, “of the top 100 economies, 51 are companies and only 49 are countries.” Moving the private sector toward taking greater corporate social responsibility, practising sustainability and making green investments will be critical in creating decent work, generating wealth and eradicating poverty while protecting our natural resource base.

In a resource-constrained international economy, investment in and management of natural capital will be pivotal in enhancing shareholder value and raising brand or company profile. As Andre DuBrin puts it, “a company that pursues the ideals of a Green Economy will therefore gain some competitive advantage in the global market.” Governments should create the enabling policy, legal, fiscal, and regulatory frameworks for private sector involvement: moving toward financial transparency — and the possibility of a convention for business sustainability – are significant inclusions in the Zero Draft.

Thinking and action after Rio+20 must blur the line between so-called “soft” issues like the environment and “hard” ones such as the economy, between social equity on one hand and GDP and interest rates on the other; the emergence of new metrics which go beyond GDP to encompass quality of life and social indices as part of the new sustainability paradigm holds promise. The Rio Conference will be a success if it is perceived and treated as a special general meeting of all the shareholders of Earth Incorporated, aimed at demonstrating the costs, benefits and value of simultaneously building natural, human and social capital; fostering social cohesion and economic sustainability.

When the gavel goes down at Rio we should be walking away with an immense sense of satisfaction, carrying in our hearts a commitment to sustainable development, carrying in our minds the intent to make it happen and carrying in our hands a tangible set of policies and initiatives that will make the transformative difference across the globe. In Conference Secretary General Sha Zukang’s words: “history has given us an opportunity to make a difference. Let us all seize that.”

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