Rio+20: Leadership from New Directions

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Published on June 27th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

Rio de Janerio

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

Rio+20 just came to a close. Tens of thousands of leaders from governments, businesses and NGOs gathered to find solutions for supporting the planet’s 7 billion people and creating a healthy, prosperous world.

Twenty years ago, the first Rio Earth Summit created important momentum around the idea that economic and social development must go hand-in-hand with environmental protection. It resulted in important commitments to protect biodiversity and address issues like water scarcity, climate change and biodiversity loss. It led to the creation of significant aid programs and environmental ministries around the world. A lot has been achieved.

But the challenges ahead are enormous, and only growing. International negotiations at conferences like Rio simply aren’t keeping up.

The good news is that now we are seeing leadership from new directions. This week, countries largely on the sidelines at the first Earth Summit made bold — yet achievable — commitments to invest in nature. And just as significant, those countries were joined by another player that wasn’t even on the invitation list 20 years ago: the private sector.

These leaders aren’t waiting for one-size-fits-all global agreements to be hashed out. Instead, they are forging ahead with their own commitments to protect nature in ways that grow jobs, businesses, and better lives for people, especially the poor.

On June 18, The Nature Conservancy was honored to host a gathering of 24 major companies representing over $500 billion in combined revenues — including Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, General Motors, Kimberly-Clark, Nike, The Walt Disney Company and Xerox. At this gathering, the 24 companies stepped forward to commit to specific actions to make their operations more sustainable. Their commitments go beyond philanthropic motives. These leaders recognize that safeguarding Earth’s natural assets is a business imperative.

As part of these commitments, the Conservancy and Dow Chemical were proud to announce a new project in Santa Vitória, Brazil. Here, we will help guide the construction of the world’s largest integrated facility for the production of bioplastics from renewable sugar cane.

As part of our five-year collaboration announced last year, our work together in Brazil will help Dow make smart decisions that help minimize the impacts of agricultural expansion around the facility. It will also help the company better understand the value of nature’s services — for example, fertile soils for agriculture production and access to fresh, clean water through forest protection and restoration. By keeping these services healthy and functioning for the future, companies like Dow and others that made commitments at Rio better position themselves to manage risks to their supply chains, business assets and license to operate.

Of course collaborations like this do not come without risk. Success is not guaranteed. But change won’t come from government or individuals alone. It must come from all sectors of society, including business.

Since the first Rio Summit, a lot has changed on the public policy front, too. Twenty years ago, the process stereotyped the world into poor countries needing to clean up and rich countries needing to pay up and set out to negotiate one-size-fits all, consensus-driven commitments. Now we are in a G20 world, and we are seeing an evolution towards bottom-up commitments that are specific to the needs and challenges of individual countries.

New countries are stepping forward to take the lead in creating this new model — setting goals that will work for their people and committing to measures and accountability. The Conservancy was very pleased to organize and participate in the session on June 21, in which heads of state and government of six countries came together in an event co-hosted by Indonesian President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Thomas of Grenada to commit to protect natural resources that provide for food, sustainable livelihoods, protection from natural disasters, and other benefits to people:

  • Indonesia, alongside island countries of Grenada, Seychelles and Antigua & Barbuda, committed to invest in the health of the oceans because it’s a necessary and smart way to address food security and national development objectives.
  • Colombia announced a nationwide program to compensate for the unavoidable environmental impacts of infrastructure development and natural resource extraction and it committed to an integrated planning process for the whole Magdalena River basin.
  • Australia committed to establishing the world’s largest and most comprehensive network of marine reserves, and to significantly increasing its funding for other country’s marine and climate change adaptation work in the Pacific.
  • Seychelles and Antigua & Barbuda both committed to explore the use of “debt for climate adaption swaps” – innovative financing mechanisms to convert debt into long term funding to address climate change.
  • The Conservancy committed to help execute those financial transactions and Nippon Foundation committed to provide technical assistance and training as well.

These government and business leaders are going to be the ones to make the ideal of sustainable development real on the ground. They will play a lead role in figuring out how to actually get it done. They’ve also committed to share lessons learned and take an active role in bringing more leaders on board.

Twenty years ago, who would have thought that these would be the players creating a bold new model for sustainability in the 21st century? But these are the examples that give me hope that we can create a healthier, more sustainable planet by the next Earth Summit — if we make the right choices and investments now.

[Image: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image source: Alicia Nijdam/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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