Last year’s Rio+20 UN summit may have been something of a disappointment but there were still some significant and positive outcomes say Anthony Buono, Jean-Christophe Carteron and Matthew Gitsham.
A little over a year ago, roughly 50,000 people – government leaders, corporate executives and civil society groups including NGOs, youth movements and higher education institutes – travelled to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for the largest UN summit ever organised, the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
Given the gravity of the social and environmental challenges that were raised during the summit – as well as the promise of real change – therewas considerable disappointment, almost to the point of dismay, that government leaders failed to reach any significant agreement.
Kumi Naidoo, the international executive director for Greenpeace International, referred to the Conference as “a failure of epic proportions”. The Pew Charitable Trusts, a global research, public policy and environmental organisation, noted that as a “once-in-a-decade meeting with so much at stake, it was a far cry from a success”. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon lamented that Rio + 20 had “not lived up to the measurement of the challenge”.
But one outcome of the summit – the agreement to develop a set of global Sustainable Development Goals to guide policy and strategy among governments, the private sector and civil society over the next two decades – may with time come to be seen as an important milestone.
These goals, which are likely to include specific global targets on such areas as nutrition, education, gender equality, health, energy and climate, have enormously important implications for business – and for business schools.
Such goals can be significant. The noted economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued that while efforts to agree to legally binding deals between governments on global issues typically fall well short of expectations, non-binding goals have actually proved to be powerful enablers of change.
They bring much-needed co-ordination to coalitions of the willing and enable unconventional partnerships of governments, NGOs and businesses to sidestep those who want to prevent change.
In retrospect, Rio + 20 may also ultimately be seen as demonstrating the fact that it is no longer just government leaders who need to agree on policy. Indeed, an important result from the Rio summit is the ambition of the partnerships that have emerged between the private sector and civil society.
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