The current United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio+20, is a new attempt to lay the foundations for a prosperous, peaceful and sustainable world. The summit is being held 20 years after the first in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It represents a new opportunity to renew the global political commitment to sustainable development and to act to eradicate poverty and environmental destruction, while constructing a bridge toward the future by analyzing the progress being made in sustainable development. It is being held against the background of an economic crisis in which sustainability runs the risk of being pushed into the background.
This may be one of the reasons why expectations of any achievements in Rio+20 are slim. Another is that some major world leaders have said they are not coming. Nevertheless, many others will attend with the idea that sustainability should once more gain ground on the international agenda.
However, figures show that there is a great deal of ground still to be covered. Progress achieved in the last 20 years has been very limited. Few agreements were reached during the preparatory meetings to the summit held a few days ago in New York. Expectations in Spain are also not excessively optimistic. This can be seen in a recent survey (May 2012) prepared by the Fundación Entorno and entitled What do Spanish people think about Rio+20?
The results reveal that 68% of those surveyed do not trust international institutions and do not believe it possible that binding agreements will be established at the summit. The survey also shows that the public in general does not understand the main aspects of sustainable development and that both individuals and companies tend to mistrust international institutions. They also do not believe that binding agreements can be put into place at a global level with specific targets and objectives.
The president of the Spanish network of the Global Compact, Juan de la Mota, hopes that Rio+20 can at least mean that companies include sustainable development into their long-term strategy. De la Mota believes that the contribution of companies to the summit agenda “will be focused in two main directions: investment in renewable energies and sustainable or smart cities.”
De la Mota is confident that although other things may not be achieved, Rio+20 can become a catalyst for business action. He believes that the Summit should serve to extend and intensify the contribution of business to global sustainability, and to develop “effective incentives and measures to speed up the transformation toward a low-carbon economy.”
For the president of the Spanish network of the Global Compact, another of the objectives is to mobilize greater collaboration between companies, industry, government and civil society to identify the technology that is most respectful to the environment.
Some of the participants at Rio+20, such as Ricardo Young, director of the Ethos Institute, have publicly expressed their hopes that this international meeting can give rise to some interesting projects. In fact, the institute he heads is boosting the launch of the Global Union for Sustainability, which is to become an international meeting point for companies and NGOs to maintain an ongoing dialog.
Dialog and the key role of sustainability are two of the aspects on which BBVA’s Director of Sustainability, Tomás C onde, does not appear to have many doubts: “Rio+20 will be a gigantic networking event, where definitive decisions may not be taken, but at least sustainability will be raised to a significant vantage point from which to gain visibility.”
Joaquín de Ena, Director of Sustainability at Banco Santander, takes the same line. In his opinion, “with the current crisis there is a need to find new business models and opportunities, and there is no doubt that everything linked to sustainable development can provide these.”
De Ena adds that “we cannot let this opportunity pass us by.” In his opinion, a collaboration and coordination agreement should be reached between developed and developing countries on key sustainability issues. “Large corporations should also support these agreements with strategic sector-based and cross-cutting plans that support innovation and the sustainable business opportunities that are generated.”
Telefónica’s department for climate change and energy efficiency also expects assistants at the Rio summit to highlight “the environmental dimension of sustainability, not as a contribution to sustainable development, but a fundamental non-negotiable project.” This is the view of Daniela Torres, the head of the department, who says that she would like to see a clear need established to identify new technologies that can guarantee sustainability in the consumption of resources.
Despite the fact that the shadow of the crisis and its serious economic effects could frustrate some of the hopes that they have placed in the Rio+20 summit, many believe that the least that will emerge from it is a commitment to minimum levels for promoting the green economy and eradicating poverty. This is because, as Daniela Torres recalls, these two subjects are part of the summit’s key themes. In addition to this, she considers it probable that an institutional framework could be defined for sustainable development, “and we could end up with the creation of new international bodies with functions that will take a number of years to be decided on.”
Tomás Conde, the Director of Sustainability at BBVA, is somewhat skeptical regarding the achievements that could be obtained from the Rio Summit. He says that it would be desirable to make progress in the idea of integrating the environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) criteria into corporate strategy, “and for some of the major international banks to come to this forum to say that these aspects should be integrated into their credit policies, for example. Conde hopes that the ESG criteria end up becoming incorporated into the heart of business. “We have to consider to what extent banks such as ours can improve their impact on society through a credit policy that takes into account employment or environmental factors, for example,” he argues.