Guest contributor: Elizabeth Thompson, UN Assistant Secretary-General & Rio+20 Executive Coordinator 

Watch: Interview with Elizabeth Thompson

In the days ahead the press and public will dissect the Rio+20 Conference and its outcome document in order to compare it with the original and iconic Earth Summit of 1992. The public dialogue has already been permeated with many of the negative perceptions which accompany multilateral and other political processes. Even before the negotiation process is complete or mature reflection given, many commentators have already declared the outcome document and conference initiatives “weak and unambitious.” Permit me however, to turn the lens of optimism on Rio and to consider how this conference is already serving to catalyse change.

The dialogue and negotiations around the themes of Rio+20, particularly the green economy have already heightened global sensitivity to a number of issues in sustainable development and spawned new stakeholder initiatives and approaches. The host country instituted four days of civil society dialogue around important themes in sustainability and on which invited universities from across the globe led online discussion. The public then voted on the best recommendations emerging from the dialogues. This Brazilian innovation broadens the democratic engagement of citizens, giving them an enlarged role in the multilateral process; perhaps even creating a precedent for future international conferences.

The concept of the green economy linking ecology and capital is pivotal to the mainstreaming of sustainable development which will occur only when ministers of planning, finance and economic affairs embrace sustainability as central to national and global development. The reality is that we are as much connected by planes, cell phones, the internet and social media, as we are by earth’s air, ozone layer and oceans. The natural environment is equally the source of growth and development as is the technology. The World Bank meeting of Finance Ministers last April which was partly dedicated toRio+20 and sustainable development is an important new step in the mainstreaming strategy. As is the signing of the Natural Capital Declaration by CEOs at the helm of 37 banks, investment funds, and insurance companies who committed to better understanding the nexus between capital and nature, green accounting and reporting, as well as integrating natural capital considerations into their products and services.

New too, is the thrust toward considering GDP+ as an index for measuring well being, that moves beyond the traditional factors of production to include social and natural capital. The convening at Rio of 3,000 business people under the umbrella of a UN conference, to discuss sustainability and the role of business in a green economy is a significant step in the right direction, together with the idea that Rio might give rise to a convention that will enhance corporate sustainability reporting; for there will be no global green economy without the active engagement of the business sector. Hence, the ensuing debate around business viability and profitability in a green economy, issues relating to sustainable consumption and production (SCP), and defining and valuing our natural resource base as capital, was vigorous and necessary.

There has been overwhelming support for the introduction of sustainable development goals (SDGs). In my view, these goals, with targets and time frames added, will build on the progress achieved through the MDGs. Some combined formulation of SDGs and MDGs could constitute global sustainability or global development goals (GSGs or GDGs) to galvanise countries’ momentum toward universal development. The inclusion by the UN of a registry or compendium of multistakeholder commitments with an accountability mechanism is anotherRio+20 innovation which reinforces the notion of a common and shared responsibility for creating the future we want.

The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) created and launched for Rio+20 by Senior Sustainability Officer, Mohan Peck and me, with support from the UN system and the Global Compact PRME, is potentially transformative and likely to increase the global number of practitioners of sustainability. The HESI already has numerous endorsers and 175 supporting universities from 49 countries.

It requires universities and business schools to commit to:

  • reducing their ecological footprint by greening their campuses and buildings
  • developing strategies around waste, water and energy management
  • greening their on-campus transport
  • greening their procurement and supply chains
  • creating a body of literature and case studies around sustainability
  • teaching sustainable development as a core module across disciplines

These are just a few of the new directions in the development trajectory on whichRio+20 has set us all. In time Rio+20 may well come to be seen as the crucible in which all of us, as shareholders of Earth Incorporated accepted our responsibility to protect the planet, promote prosperity for her people and to be identified as the place where the multilateral system embraced the grassroots and established the platform for the global green economy, the eradication of poverty and the attainment of sustainable development globally.