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After Rio: time to stop side-stepping government responsibility

Olivier Hoedeman

Now that the dust has settled after the UN's Rio+20 summit, interpretations of what happened seem to be wildly diverging. NGOs across the board and most media observers consider the summit and its final text a disaster because of the failure to agree on binding policies and targets.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in contrast, claimed that the outcome “provides a firm foundation for social, economic and environmental well-being”, highlighting the many public-private partnerships that were presented at the summit's side-events and the pledges by governments and companies to invest an estimated $500 billion in these projects. Donald Steinberg of USAID remarked that these public-private partnership workshops  "were not really side events - they were the main events".

Malcolm Preston of business consultancy PriceWaterhouseCoopers was enthusiastic about the outcomes too, arguing that “during the summit United Nations leaders effectively passed the baton of responsibility for building the green economy to the business community”.

There's every reason to be very critical about the impact of these public-private partnerships. One of the most high-profile is Sustainable Energy for All, which aims to achieve universal access to energy and increase the share of renewable energy use. The problem is that the initiative is firmly in the hands of large energy multinationals and banks, whereas civil society is excluded.1 These stakeholders prefer to define 'renewable' in a very broad way and it's already clear that environmentally damaging energy options like agrofuels and gas will be promoted too. Sustainable Energy for All will expand the markets for energy giants, but not lead a transition to more community-managed small-scale and genuinely renewable energy sources.

And whereas Northern governments failed to commit to new funding to help Southern governments with the transition to sustainable economies, they were more generous when it comes to supporting industry initiatives like Sustainable Energy For All. Also other controversial 'green economy' initiatives, such as the World Bank's ‘Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services’ (WAVES), has been given enthusiastic backing and funding from European governments.2 There's concern that these initatives to put a price on nature are “a prelude to creating new markets in 'ecosystem' commodities”.3

Perhaps due to the despair about the failed summit, there is a widespread tendency to look to business for the way forward. Jo Leinen MEP, head of the Parliament's environment committee, told EurActiv :“I never saw so many businesses than at this Rio+20. Intelligent business leaders have well understood that sustainability is fundamental for doing business and an unsustainable world will distort and destroy business”.4

This is a rather optimistic interpretation of why so many business leaders were in Rio last week and of their role more generally. There were undoubtedly some among the over 2000 business representatives attending the summit that deserve Leinen's praise as intelligent and genuinely committed to sustainability. But for most the motive was more likely to have been about nurturing a green and responsible image that is seriously at odds with the overall behaviour of their companies. See previous mentions of Vale, ENI and BMW - and there are plenty more.

There is something quite unsettling about the argument that because governments failed to take responsibility, we should now rely on business initiatives to solve the global environment crisis. After all, lobbying by large multinational companies has played a key role in making governments withdraw from making the kind of ambitious binding commitments that the world needs. During Rio+20, lobby groups like International Chamber of Commerce was eagerly positioning itself as part of 'progressive business'. The reality is that they are one of the main obstacles to progress in international rules to protect people and the environment. In UN climate talks the ICC lobbies against binding measures impacting business. The last time a proposal for enforcable UN corporate accountability rules was discussed, it was the ICC that killed it.

It was a disaster that governments failed to take responsbility at the Rio+20 summit, but it would be a far greater tragedy to conclude that voluntary industry initiatives and partnerships with big business are a real alternative. The truth is that transnational corporations, with few exceptions, continue to behave in a deeply irresponsible way and are a major cause of the social and environmental problems we're facing. There is no alternative to governments creating global rules to solve this, including a strong mechanism to stop corporate tax evasion and a binding international framework to ensure corporate accountability. One of the few concrete outcomes of Rio+20 was the agreement to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's), to be defined in the coming months and to enter force in 2015. This offers an opportunity for civil society to remind government and the UN agencies of the need to take charge and not leave the future of the planet in the hands of big business.

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The BMW cars are a classic example of greenwash. Electric cars are of course greener than conventional cars, but the BMW exhibition gives a misleading positive image of the company, whose main business continues to be selling petrol-guzzling luxury cars.

Big business is out in full force at the Rio+20 summit. At Business Day during Rio+20, Louise Kantrow of the International Chamber of Commerce received thunderous applause when she highlighted that they were part of “the largest business delegation ever to attend a UN conference”. “Business needs to take the lead and we are taking the lead,” she added.
The contrast could not have been greater. I had spent the whole day attending the Rio+20 Business Day, held in a luxury hotel on the beach side, listening to one business speaker after the other argue that voluntary initiatives by industry, if scaled up, are the solution to the world’s social and environmental crisis. When I took the bus back to the other side of Rio de Janeiro, I didn’t get off in time and found myself in an unknown street, where my attention was caught by drumming and a loud amplified voice. In the square nextdoor there was a demonstration, a thousand or more people demonstrating against corporate exploitation of people and the environment.
The UN's Rio+20 summit this week will be the target of unprecedented levels of industry activity, including lobbying and greenwash. At the same time, there is growing critique of the corporate capture of the UN - with UN agencies appearing to endorse greenwashing without any criticism.This article is also available in French.