When the eve of a new year approaches, it is often a time for reflection. With respect to global sustainability, we have a lot to anticipate in 2012. For students of sustainability like me, 2012 represents a significant milestone.
I recently attended an event at the University of Waterloo featuring the Executive Coordinator of the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Henrietta Elizabeth Thompson as the keynote speaker. Her talk was a walk down memory lane. I remembered one of my first university classes called “Introduction to Environmental Issues,” in which we learned about Agenda 21, a road map to sustainable development for business and government including a declaration of environment and development. It was endorsed by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the largest-ever meeting of world leaders. This meeting took place during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, convening senior officials of 179 governments.
The foundations for the 1992 Rio process were laid in 1972, when 113 nations gathered for the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the first global environmental meeting. In 1983, the UN created the World Commission on Environment and Development. Four years later its landmark report, Our Common Future, warned that significant lifestyle and business changes were needed or the world would face unacceptable levels of human suffering and environmental damage.
So, here we are, two decades after that pivotal Earth Summit in Rio. As preparations are underway for Rio + 20, many are questioning what kind of progress has been made since 1992. Certainly, the world is a different place now as global temperatures continue to rise with the last 10 years being the warmest on record, the number of megacities has doubled and annual plastic production reached a record 265 million tons worldwide in 2010. For a broader overview see this in-depth article from CBC News.
Conference Secretary General, Mr. Sha Zukang’s Blog reinforces that that Rio + 20 is not a climate conference (this is INFCCC’s role) and that the two major themes being explored are the transition to a green economy and institutional frameworks for international environmental governance. I can’t imagine avoiding our climate crisis at a conference on global sustainability where the expectation is to strengthen initiatives that integrate all dimensions of sustainability and breakdown silos. Environmental thought leader, David Orr, reminds us:
Human society is running two deficits simultaneously, and we must solve them together. If we fail to do so nature will take its course. This will require a great deal of rethinking, and it will not be easy. But the present economic collapse is too farreaching, and the threat of climate disaster is too real to do otherwise. Taken together, they indicate we are not nearly as rich as we once presumed. We have been living far beyond our means by drawing down natural capital, rather like a corporation selling off assets in a fire sale and calling the proceeds profit.
What role does industry play?
What is the role of business in pathways to global sustainability? The answer is about understanding our social-ecological interdependencies and staying relevant in a destabilized world. Our founder, Ray Anderson, often asked audiences, what’s the business case for depleting Earth’s life support systems? The point here is doing harm to the planet ultimately harms us.
Business cannot survive in a society that fails. Chapter 30 in Agenda 21 clearly states that business and industry have a critical role in helping the world achieve sustainable development goals. What other institution has the resources and the ability to respond quickly to rapid change?
Fresh out of COP17, and in anticipation of Rio + 20, business leaders are being asked to “do more, more forcefully and more wisely.” According to Greenbiz, progress is too slow to keep global warming under 2 degrees. Business must be proactive, push harder, take a holistic view, and enact radical efforts to collaborate.
What can business expect of Rio +20? If two decades of climate negotiations is any indication, perhaps we need to keep expectations low. At the very least, this landmark conference is a reminder that we have no time to wait for governments.
What can the world expect of business? Finding ways to reduce waste and use resources more efficiently is stated as a major goal of this Conference. Let’s make sure the tough questions are being asked. Business has a powerful voice to leverage. What will inspire the elimination of waste altogether? What will it take to break our addiction to oil and other virgin raw materials?
These are the kinds of questions addressed by Front Number Seven on Interface’s climb up Mount Sustainability: Redesign Commerce. Business and industry may have the ability to respond quickly but it needs to respond wisely and purposefully. This means going beyond redesigning individual business models to addressing systems change and rethinking the infrastructures in which business operates. It also means leveraging its influence for sustainable development.
The world is a different place from 1994 when Interface began its sustainability journey. Global sustainability will clearly be on the world stage in 2012, as it should be. This is no time for strategic ambiguity; rather, the human family needs strategic sustainability.