Rio revisited: Glass half-full?

Dilma Rousseff speaking in Rio Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff attended a very successful summit

A couple of weeks back I chaired a debate at Chatham House, the London-based think tank, on a question that I'd been asking myself for a while.

Rio+20: Green Growth or Greenwash? was the title.

As I outlined at the beginning of the debate, it was almost as if Rio de Janeiro hosted two completely different UN sustainable development summits simultaneously in late June.

One was attended by the Brazilian government, several UN institutions, corporations, and people who advise corporations on issues such as supply chain reform.

Their summit was a great success - pledging money for various sustainability initiatives, setting up new partnerships, saving multilateralism and proving that the private sector has raced ahead of governments in their desire for a greener, more equitable future.

Groups such as Oxfam and WWF were evidently at a different event.

Theirs achieved virtually nothing, with Oxfam UK chief Barbara Stocking, for example, saying "it absolutely did not" seize what had been billed as a "once in a generation opportunity" to put the global development path on a sustainable track.

At the time, along with just about every other journalist I spoke to, my impression was more in tune with WWF and Oxfam than the glass half-full contingent.

With hindsight, did I miss something?

Let's begin with the summit organisation itself - properly the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. For more than a year beforehand, organisers were clear that this would not be one of those events that delivered a big, binding international agreement on anything.

Rather, they said, we should look at the commitments that governments, companies and civil society groups were prepared to make.

And make commitments they did. The UN summary claims "more than 700".

Activist blowing soap bubbles Activists felt they were blowing bubbles in the wind

Sounds a lot - so what are they?

A majority fall in the category of education. Let me pull one out at random from near the top of the list, from Alfred State College in the US.

"Over the next year, we intend to complete an assessment of our sustainability performance using the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (Stars)," it reads.

"We will use the results of this assessment to prepare a comprehensive sustainability plan that includes quantitative targets. Stars will also provide a mechanism for tracking and communicating our progress on sustainability over time."

Near the bottom - for no better reason than I went there once - I select the University of Tampere.

"The University of Tampere has launched a programme for sustainable development, the Sustainability Programme, where it sets the objectives for promoting sustainable development in the teaching, research and everyday operations at the University for the years 2012-2015."

Tampere is also Finland's first Fair Trade university.

The most dynamic-sounding pledge on the register involves planting 100 million trees, mainly in schools, by 2017.

Rio summit jargon buster
Use the dropdown for easy-to-understand explanations of key terms:
Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS)
Granting countries the right to gain financially from the exploitation of biological resources discovered on their territory. Aims to prevent biopiracy. Agreement made at the UN CBC meeting in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Rio+20 will see further discussion particularly of resources from international waters.

As this initiative has been going since 2004, it's hard to see how it qualifies as "new" - nor, as it's planted seven million trees in those eight years, what guarantees the planting of another 93 million in just five years. Nothing wrong with planting trees, of course. China alone claims to plant more than a billion each year.

On the business side, consultancy firm KPMG - in the shape of its special global adviser Yvo de Boer, former head of the UN climate convention - has highlighted the pledges of the private sector.

"On the sidelines of Rio+20, green economy pledges of more than $500bn have been made," he tweeted.

A KPMG analysis notes that on the governmental level: "Signing something, anything even, was seen as better than signing nothing. That... produced a lowest common denominator document that satisfied almost no-one."

However, while governments were busy saving face, it contends: "There was plenty of action, it just did not come from the multilateral political negotiations. Businesses - and some governments, both national and local - got on with the job either unilaterally or in groups, often in collaboration with civil society and NGOs."

A separate bit of the UN website records pledges made by businesses at Rio+20. Here's a random selection:

  • "A subset of UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate companies pledge to expand and deepen their efforts in support of more sustainable water management practices in 2012 and beyond"
  • "Reduce potential damage to natural infrastructure by reducing water, land, and air pollution resulting from the disposition of electronic waste by instituting stringent practices for the responsible management, disposition and tracking of e-waste" (Lockheed Martin)
  • "Supporting under-served young people acquire the education and skills needed to join and succeed in the 21st century workplace" (Deloitte)

Again, nothing much not to like. But is it enough?

At my first UN climate summit, in Nairobi in 2006, I asked an experienced negotiator what to me was the only question that mattered: "What has this event done to curb climate change?"

He gently chided me for it. "That's the one question you're not supposed to ask."

Activist protesting against KFC Corporations came under the spotlight from activists - but were embraced by organisers

Before Rio+20, just about every environmental indicator was pointing in the wrong direction. Greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, loss of forest and wetland... and at Rio, governments acknowledged it, repeatedly, in speeches.

So in all the voluntary commitments made at Rio, precisely what is there that will turn any of these trends around?

Looking at the social side of the sustainable development agenda, precisely what happened to bring the poorest out of poverty, supply them with proper sanitation, or free them from the burden of eminently treatable childhood illnesses?

What was agreed to insulate the global financial system against further shocks - another issue identified by world leaders in the run-up to Rio as a just subject for discussion?

If the answer to those questions is "very little", then precisely what was the point?

The Chatham House debate didn't produce anything to seriously challenge my initial conclusions.

Panelists with business connections ran through a number of initiatives happening in buildings, energy supply, water efficiency and so on that are curtailing the expansion of industry's footprint.

But they also acknowledged it's not enough.

When big UN set-pieces fail, people come up with apologist answers for a number of reasons. They're desperate to preserve the multilateral process. They're keen to please the hosts. They see other issues as more important than the conference agenda. Or they have a particular line to push.

But I think, overall, with the benefit of five weeks of hindsight and a number of post-Rio discussions under my belt, the conference that I reported on was the one that actually took place.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Back at Rio in 1992, we were warned that without action, global CO2 emissions would rise by 50% in 20 years.

    Lots of promises were made. Governments trumpet their efforts to cut down, and their successes. And 20 years later, global CO2 emissions have risen... 50%.

    Forgive me if I'm a tad cynical that things will be different this time. Promises can say anything at all if they're never delivered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    9 JacobScherr "A pledge by major multilateral development banks to invest $175 billion in sustainable urban transportation."

    Wow, that's almost enough to finish the Edinburgh trams project!

    Seriously though, there's been too much negativity about the Rio+20. Progress is gradually being made, and we should encourage that, rather than just pointing at the negatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Any agreement by business will only be effective if there is profit to be made otherwise they will be undercut and go out of business. So this has to be a global, government lead project. That's why Rio+20 was a failure in my view.

    There are many in business that see what's coming but a few massive industries (oil, banks, mining etc) have bought enough politicians to stall the needed changes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #1. Reminds of all those intelligent design tweeters who thought the "God particle" discovery was the death of atheism. Facepalm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    With the “green” movement being modern day Luddites it is hard for any progress on the important issues facing this planet

    Green pressure is moving electricity generation in Europe back towards coal, simply because the greens have decided that Nuclear goes against their ideals
    Poor Belgium

    All the greens want is cuddly policies that suit their middle class ideological naïve backers

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Businesses and a few governments have accepted that change is coming, and are positioning themselves to operate in a warming, resource depleted world. For them, the big innovation from Rio was a system for including environmental costs and benefits on their balance sheets.
    Most governments seem to be doing as little as possible and leaving it to another generation to sort out the mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    For a fuller picture of the commitments made at Rio+20, check out There were some real gamechangers - such as the pledge by 400 major corporations to eliminate deforestation from their supply chain within 8 years and a pledge by major multilateral development banks to invest $175 billion in sustainable urban transportation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    #7 JREyre

    ".. . The UN manages to make the EU look dynamic."

    I hate to say it but the UN makes a dead parrot look dynamic.
    Just look at Syria or the nuclear arms treaties or any of a hundred other things. The UN is practically the definition of ineffectual talking shop. And worse even when it does do something most of the time it is a useless cobbled together compromise that doesn't work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It appears that the summit has confirmed that unilateral moves by goverments and buisnesses are far more effective than multilateral talks. The UN manages to make the EU look dynamic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    #4 Black_Pearl
    "the ice sheets in Greenland come & go are a cyclic event in the earths history. A natural event"

    We know that. It's been happening for the last million years. Her data clarifies that it happens due to the 50W/M2 extra insolation at the peak of Milankivich warming.
    But why are we seeing similar changes now, when we should be cooling towards the next glacial period?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Vis the apron
    "The bankers are getting fat its time to send them to market." . . :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    3.Entropic man
    9 Minutes ago
    # Black_Pearl
    "As far as Climate Change goes, this lastest scientific field study appears to blow the C02 hypothesis in to thin air"

    You'll need to unpack that statement a bit. Nothing she said seems to be a major game-changer
    What ? in that the ice sheets in Greenland come & go are a cyclic event in the earths history. A natural event

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    # Black_Pearl
    "As far as Climate Change goes, this lastest scientific field study appears to blow the C02 hypothesis in to thin air"

    You'll need to unpack that statement a bit. Nothing she said seems to be a major game-changer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I think the main problem with modern activism can be summed up nicely by the two photos in this article. The loudest environmentalists would rather blow bubbles and wear silly aprons than actually do anything useful or effective.
    Although I am quite impressed at the engineering of the bubble blower, having the soap dispenser attached to the blower will greatly increase his efficiency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    As far as Climate Change goes, this lastest scientific field study appears to blow the C02 hypothesis in to thin air.
    Basically saying that scientists will have to re think


Page 3 of 3



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.