Search for something

Grey clouds over Rio

UN conference on sustainable development - entrance

There are stormy skies over Rio this morning as Heads of State roll into town to sign the Summit agreement. War ships patrol the coast and military helicopters hover under the slate grey cloud. Then the drizzle starts. Nothing quite as cathartic as a storm. No thunder or lightening, just air unable to hold the dampness any longer. Nature seems to be sending a signal if we care to observe it closely enough.

The talk in Rio is of which leaders will be attending and which won’t. Who is at the G20 in Mexico because they see the urgency of the economic crisis but has decided not to come to Rio – presumably because the environmental crisis seems either less important or less urgent.

This again seems symbolic. There is urgency for restarting the world economy and promoting economic growth.

I suspect economic growth is indeed essential to lift the world’s 1 billion poor up to a decent standard of living. But we still cannot work out how to do this in a socially just and environmentally sustainable way. In the meantime it seems the powerful have decided that any growth is better than none.

There’s talk too about the final agreement. A young British women’s activist I met was scandalised when the Brazilian government produced its own version of the ‘Zero Text’ to break the deadlock. The compromises it contained saved their face, she felt, but did little to save the planet.

George Monbiot in The Guardian is scathing about the role of the US government in watering down the text. Meanwhile Nick Clegg is reported as blaming China and the G77 (which represents the poor countries of the world) for not embracing the ‘Green Economy’.

Now I’m as passionate as most about saving the planet, but this seems a little naïve to me. As the Rio Summit was debating the issues, WWF published its latest Living Planet report. This reveals that High Income Countries have an environmental footprint five times bigger than Low Income Countries.

As I understand it the G77 position is that the Rich Countries are responsible for the bulk of global warming and so should be financing measures to tackle global environmental problems.

What they are also asking for is the sharing of green technologies to support them to take a low-carbon development path. This doesn’t seem so unreasonable to me.

So, on balance where has all the talk, the lobbying and late night negotiating got us?

Well, there are definite positive steps forward. The notion of Sustainable Development Goals might in time turn out to be helpful.

Certainly the Millennium Development Goals seem to have focused political will and to have driven real social progress in a number of countries. People also say the text on Oceans is positive.

But that’s probably about all.

The more radical proposals like compulsory social and environmental reporting for all corporations and ending fossil fuel subsidies have been removed from the final agreement.

In a world that is so starkly divided between rich and poor it is perhaps no surprise that it is difficult to reach agreement on such fundamental issues. No surprise then that the final agreement reflects today’s weather – damp and grey.

But then Rio has been about more than just the final agreement. The optimists here have been stressing the importance of making unilateral or collective commitments and forcing the pace of change that way.

And that’s where the positive outcomes have been. We now have a more radical vision for the future of management education – one that sees personal transformation as a key element of responsible leadership.

And the Outcomes Document for the UN Global Compact session we attended is also positive. There are commitments to developing standards for ethical investment, to devising ways to measure environmental impact within corporate accounts and to protecting water, agriculture and reducing energy use.

Will this be enough given the perilous state of the planet? I have doubts. Only time will tell.

But at least there is the start of a realisation that leaders, managers and corporations need to adopt new, more conscious (and conscientious) approaches in order to play their part.

As the waves break steadily on the Rio shoreline the drizzle stops. I look expectantly over my shoulder but the sun cannot quite force its way through the thick cloud cover.