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Kogod Now / Other  / Rio+20
Panorama view of a sunset in Brazil


The Role of Business at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”), coming up in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, presents an auspicious opportunity for the global business community to make a genuine commitment to addressing sustainable development. Business should take advantage of that opportunity, having passed up the chance at the June 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development—the “Earth Summit,” also held in Rio.

EPA administrator William Reilly led the official US delegation to the Earth Summit in President George H.W. Bush’s absence. Reilly, a highly respected environmentalist who previously had been the president of the World Wildlife Federation, had high hopes that the United States would play a key role at Rio, but was “cut off at the knees” (in his own words) by the Bush White House.

Despite the absence of supportive American leadership, the governments of the world scored a major victory at Rio, putting climate change on the map by shaping the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that ultimately led to the Kyoto Protocol. They also passed the Rio Declaration, a set of principles designed to guide the world’s approach to sustainable development, and Agenda 21, a plan for implementing these principles at the global, national, and local levels.

The business community’s contribution to the Earth Summit is less clear.

Represented by the Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group of 48 business leaders organized for the event, business’s role at Rio seems to have been primarily reactive. For example, during the Summit’s planning stages, Norway and Sweden pushed for adoption of a business code of conduct, but the US government and the International Chamber of Commerce successfully blocked the effort. The Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 included only opaque references to the role of business and free trade in sustainable development, which the UN defines as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations to meet their own needs.

Business will have another chance at Rio+20 to play a proactive role in sustainable development. Although the preparatory meetings being held at UN Headquarters in New York are primarily for the official delegations, business groups and civil society are being permitted to attend sidebar planning sessions. At one such recent session, Chad Holliday, the chairman of Bank of America, highlighted the role of business in addressing sustainability:

As governments consider how to strengthen and advance commitments to Rio+20, it is timely to take stock of the strong progress made by business and the future potential of business solutions in solving sustainability challenges. Business can and will be a significant driver of sustainability.

Business should come to Rio+20 prepared to take responsibility for promoting sustainable development, a green economy, and the eradication of poverty—all themes of the conference—and to heed the call of Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chair of the prestigious World Economic Forum, who in 2008 wrote that companies “not only must be engaged with their stakeholders but are themselves stakeholders alongside governments and civil society.” This type of commitment eluded the business community at the 1992 Earth Summit.

Rio+20 is also a great forum for major global corporations that have come into their prime—or come into existence—since the original Rio Earth Summit to make their marks on the world stage. This includes the Silicon Valley crowd, for example, in particular the social media companies whose leadership and workforce largely hail from a generation whose members were in grade school at the time of the Earth Summit and are now major players in the world economy. That generation has grown up with a heightened awareness of sustainability and responsibility.

Both business groups and individual companies should make their presence felt at Rio+20. Google did so at the last UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, in Cancun in 2010, when it announced the launch of the Google Earth Engine, which will permit users to monitor worldwide environmental changes such as deforestation. At the press conference announcing the launch, Google referred to such environmental challenges as a “Google-size problem.”

Google exemplifies the perspective business needs to take: that threats to sustainable development should be viewed as business problems that business needs to solve. Business leaders should come to Rio with new, innovative, and high-tech ways for business to help save the planet. The governments of the world are having a hard time accomplishing that goal, and need all the help they can get.

Business has the talent. It has the money. And, like never before, it has the willpower. Let’s hope business can make it happen.

Daniel Jacobs is an executive-in-residence and director of Kogod’s new MS in Sustainability Management degree program.

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