Prof. Thomas Dyllick comments on UN sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20)
A lack of commitment permeated discussions at the UN sustainability conference. Nonetheless, sustainability appears to be increasing in significance both in the economy and in education. Thomas Dyllick on Rio+20
Now that the UN-Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio + 20) has been concluded with an outcome document that had been drawn up before the two-day deliberations at government level were taken up, the search for an assessment of the results has started. Even official government representatives are arriving at very reserved judgements. For the head of the Swiss negotiating delegation, it is a result “with which Switzerland is likely to be able to live”; the Danish prime minister is “moderately satisfied”.
For representatives of environmental organisations, however, sustainability threatened to become a farce in Rio after the Brazilian presidency had removed all the open points from the outcome document at the last minute, including the concerns of the social organisations, in order to be able to submit a document to the heads of government who were about to arrive that would be acceptable to all and sundry. 16 of the 20 heads of government who had gathered for the G20 summit in Mexico decided not to travel on to Rio in the first place. Obama, Cameron, Merkel and Putin had already announced before the summit that they would not be attending.
Lack of commitment characterised the debate
The non-binding nature of the declarations and the lack of explicit targets, benchmarks and deadlines have been rightly criticised. In political terms, a way has been defined for the definition of sustainability objectives; the same is true for the establishment of a high-ranking intergovernmental forum for the further coordination of sustainability policy. In economic terms, the turnaround towards a green economy and the adoption of a ten-year-old – albeit voluntary – framework programme for the creation of sustainable production and consumption are at least tantamount to the definition of a fundamental change of course, which has also just been accepted as part of the programme at the G20 summit.
This progress is difficult to judge since above and beyond the demand for corporate sustainability reporting, its implementation remains non-binding and will remain at the discretion of individual governments and of trade and industry. Although a green economic system has therefore been born, its further development is completely open.
Lack of political will in times of crisis
Although the idea of sustainability was invigorated and the dedication to it displayed in all social areas was impressive, Rio failed to set the necessary political course. It failed to bring about the breakthrough of “the future we want” – thus the motto of Rio+20 – let alone of the future we need. The footprint of mankind has recently increased from 1.35 to 1.5, i.e. we now use up 150 per cent of the biocapacity that is available on an annual basis. The new Global Environmental Outlook comes to the conclusion that only in four out of the 90 most important environmental goals have improvements been made since the first sustainability conference in Rio in 1992: particularly in times of crisis, there is a lack of political will.
Will the economy be able to step into the breach and develop effective solutions? The new President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development emphasised on Economy Day that after an initial stage of philanthropic commitment, responsibility and sustainability were now recognised as an integral component of corporate strategies. Now the task was to accelerate the effectiveness of the measures in such a way that the ecological situation would actually improve. Trade and industry could not only assume a great deal of responsibility here but also had an opportunity to distinguish itself in the field of sustainability. Companies were able to provide evidence of their environmental commitment in the form of a considerable number of initiatives. At any rate, the issue of sustainability appears to have arrived in big corporations and their executive boards.
A framework for a green economy
Wherever markets and consumers already point in a sustainable direction, as is the case with renewable energies, for example, entrepreneurial commitment and innovation will also result in new solutions. Wherever this is not the case, nothing will happen unless the general conditions and political precepts for the market are changed. One example may illustrate this: the CEO of the big bank Santander in Brazil frankly admitted that banks would not integrate aspects of sustainability into their financial assessments off their own bat without compulsion even if this were correct and necessary for the banking world as a whole.
The development of sustainable management training was discussed by participants in the conference within the framework of the PRME organisation. Many business schools are only just starting to focus on this issue now. New subjects and different forms of teaching are called for. Business schools will have to think about how they intend to train globally responsible managers and how they can align their research more closely with social challenges – but also how they can reinforce their public commitment. Or, in other words: so far, business schools have tried to be the best in the world, now they will have to try to be the best for the world.