Rio+20: A View from Brazil
Posted September 19, 2012
Brazil, India, China and other emerging economies are reshaping sustainability issues and focus areas. The importance and the influence of these countries on global issues will only increase in the decades ahead, so they must be involved in creating solutions. In these countries, the social deficit creates the need and expectation for companies to serve as agents of progress. The challenge is to include the mass of the population in the benefits of development, preferably as productive agents of progress. There is a need for a more comprehensive vision and inclusive approaches to solving our problems, and much of this is going to have to come from companies.
Being based in São Paulo, I have had a lot of opportunity to talk about the Rio+20 Conference with people from around the world before, during and after the conference itself. The themes of partnership, geography and technology have come up again and again in these discussions.
First, conference attendees saw that solutions to social and environmental needs have to involve active partnerships among companies, NGOs and others. Open-sourcing and joint platforms initiated by companies and NGOs are needed to create change and enable a more productive environment for business and society. This is in part due to a failure of governments to lead on critical sustainability problems, requiring greater leadership from other quarters. Expectations are growing that companies will be responsible and accountable for playing a larger role in addressing these problems, and will help move government toward action. The good news is that this is starting to happen: More companies were at the table at Rio+20 than at the original Rio Conference in 1992, and are willing to play a major role.
There was also a focus on “New Geographies” for sustainability, as Brazil, India, China and other emerging economies (BICs) are reshaping sustainability issues and focus areas. The importance and the influence of these countries on global issues will only increase in the decades ahead, so they must be involved in creating solutions. In contrast to the common focus on environmental issues in developed economies, however, economic development and social impacts are the key focus in the BICs. In particular, the social deficit in the BICs creates the need and expectation for companies to serve as agents of progress. The challenge is to include the mass of the population in the benefits of development, preferably as productive agents of progress. Development has meant corporate paternalism in the past. It needs to mean organic development solutions in the future.
Another frequent theme during Rio+20 was that the deployment of existing techniques and technology may be more important than the development of new technology. As investment in the BIC economies grows, there is a great opportunity in developing the governance, legitimacy and political will to deploy and scale the solutions that are currently available. At the same time, improving sustainability performance will require a dramatic increase in the capacity for people to implement solutions. For example, in the case of agriculture-related deforestation, the adoption of better agricultural techniques will have at least as much of a benefit as the deployment of new agricultural technology. Financing and developing peoples’ capabilities will be key to adoption.
In Brazil in particular—the BIC country I am most familiar with—I see a fundamentally different sustainability landscape than the one in the U.S. or Europe. Brazilian companies are often focused on addressing immediate sustainability challenges in their own operations on a case-by-case basis rather than taking a long-term approach. Combined with piecemeal government regulatory enforcement, this leads to fragmented approaches to addressing critical needs. Companies widely recognize that it is necessary to include government actors in collaborative efforts to address social and environmental concerns, but the perception of corruption whenever companies are involved in lobbying governments impedes their efforts to engage and advocate for smart policy approaches. There is a need for more comprehensive vision and more inclusive approaches to solving our problems, and much of this is going to have to come from companies.
Overall, a key message of the conference was that companies like GE and others should not wait for government to solve the problems we face, but should identify coalition partners—customers, suppliers, civil society organizations and governments—and build their capacity to address these problems now. It will be important to do this through advocating for smart solutions through policy, as well as engaging directly with local markets to develop and understand solutions to sustainability challenges, rather than simply pushing technology available today. The question now is whether the urgency to act on issues like inclusive growth and climate change will drive action after the conference, and whether business and societal groups can engage government to play an active role.