Rio+20: We are failing very fundamentally

Malcolm McIntosh

“Since Rio 1992, the world has made little progress”. – Malcolm McIntosh

This year’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, was a follow-up to the iconic Earth Summit in the same city 20 years ago. Far from iconic, however, this summit has been branded a disappointing, insipid failure of leadership. So how did some of the world’s leading thinkers on sustainability and environment fail to come up with a new solution? Greenleaf author and blogger Malcolm McIntosh was one of the 50,000 delegates. In an exclusive article for the Greenleaf blog, he gives us an inside look at the “worrying” Rio+20:

Does convening so many people in one place constitute a useful or efficacious way of addressing global governance issues? The Rio+20 conference in June 2012 was the largest UN conference ever held, and raises the question of the validity and usefulness of such events.

I was struck how, in a high-level round-table discussion on urbanisation and cities that I was chairing, the participants from major global companies from Germany, China, Switzerland and the USA quickly reached agreement on a new global governance framework. This envisaged, in their language, “global frameworks” and “local enabling structures” based on cities, which would include regulatory measures. The nation-state was a hindrance in their view. Interestingly, this was also one of the unofficial outcomes of the conference as a whole: that leadership and initiative had been shown by civil society, some enlightened companies and by some city mayors but not on the whole by governments – especially large cumbersome powers.

We watched as the Brazilian government took control of the final communiqué. It was stalled a day before the 100 government leaders were to arrive and had to be finished in the following 24 hours. There was praise for the way in which this BRIICS country, a leading G77 member, showed resolve and diplomatic skill even though the final communiqué was a significantly diminished text from the original. In the context of the business and management agenda, one major shift was the disappearance of a commitment for greater accountability, transparency and reporting on the part of global companies. This, like so many calls for real action, was watered down at the insistence of groups of countries often led by the USA. Another example of this use – or abuse – of power involved the demolition by a USA-led bloc of a commitment to protect what is known as “the blue economy” – the marine environment.

For the 50,000 participants [of Rio+20] the overwhelming majority saw the outcomes as feeble, and as unbefitting an intelligent race of creative, innovative, enterprising, problem-solving people. We are failing very fundamentally.

The fifty-page final communiqué, “The Future We Want”, is a document lacking in much specific action, but if I may accentuate the positive it did at least support all of the feelings, aspirations and resolutions of Rio 1992, the first Earth Summit. However, since then, the world has made little progress. Carbon emissions are up 48% and the world population is 1.6 billion greater. The final communiqué also pointed towards developing the MDGs – Millennium Development Goals, which are supposed to have been achieved by 2015, into the SDGs – Sustainable Development Goals. The difference between the two sets of goals is that the former were targeted at poor and underdeveloped countries, while the SDGs will apply to all countries. This is a significant shift. The new SDGs will also include references to consumption and rich-country lifestyles, and will upgrade the work of UNEP – the UN Environment Programme.

Alongside, or outside, the formal negotiating procedures some $500 billion investments in clean technology were announced, including $175 billion from the ADB – Asian Development Bank – for the impact of transport on sustainability – congestion, pollution and respiratory issues are estimated to have something like an 8-10% negative impact on national economies.

A further inclusion in the final communiqué, and to be included in the SDGs, is reference to “green growth”, a subject that also produces much discussion around the perhaps unhelpful use of the word “green” and the idea of “growth”. Yes, this commentator thinks it is both intellectually and practically possible to talk about sustainable growth as long as growth is decoupled from solely measuring financial wealth and recoupled to understanding wealth as including the five capitals. To this end in the final document there is reference to re-measuring wealth in the form of GDP+, or including some understanding of well-being as being as important as financial income. Happiness economics is becoming mainstream, perhaps. But lacking in this discussion is clear enough reference to gender reproductive rights and the blue economy, both of which are encompassed by the five capitals model in various forms.

The conference was significantly influenced by those who were not there – Obama, Cameron and Merkel all stayed away – but saw a shift away from the West towards the East, and from the North to the South, and towards the G77 with Brazil trying to manage diplomatic processes.

From a personal perspective it was very salutary to be amongst 50,000 apparent experts on issues ranging from gender rights, to water, to oil, to human rights, to global governance to urbanisation and yet often to be engaged in conversations around fundamental understandings of idea and issues. So it was at the ten events I chaired, spoke at or reported on. Much of the conversation was concerned with cross-cultural communication. Here’s a sample: When discussing “redesigning capitalism and the new business model” with Brazilian, Japanese, German and British participants at one round-table we quickly agreed that accepting we share one planet should be a common starting point, and a shift of Kuhnian proportions. From then on in we became embroiled in the complexity and minutiae of different ways and means, all of the participants desperate to share examples from their countries of what does and doesn’t work.

At an event on human rights with speakers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Germany and Britain, it was clear from panellists and various contributors that there was no clear-cut understanding of human rights as a working political model, or as it is practised despite agreement in the necessity for the recognition of human rights. Another session on urbanisation between senior business leaders saw cities as the future of local and global governance, which naturally begs all sorts of questions concerning the management and protection of natural resources.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the Conference on Sustainable Development

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at Rio+20
© Blog do Panalto

As with the outcome of the Copenhagen conference on climate change, there is no doubt or scepticism amongst the well informed in business or government on climate change science, that resource depletion, population growth, water management and urbanisation are issues that need very urgent attention.

In coming years Rio will host both the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. Most of us have no idea how they will manage, as hosting 50,000 Rio+20 participants almost overwhelmed the hotel, transport and ancillary services. Not to worry though, as the evening Brazilian cocktail – the caipirinha made from rum – wiped out all memories of the day as the sun set over the Barra, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.

Finally, on a more thoughtful note, success depends where you start. For the 50,000 participants the overwhelming majority saw the outcomes as feeble, and as unbefitting an intelligent race of creative, innovative, enterprising, problem-solving people. We are failing very fundamentally. If however the grand sweep of humanity and humanity’s history is surveyed we are amidst a grand transition – a necessary transition – which involves the acceptance of some very basic truths: we only have one planet, there is no “away”, we have to work as one global community, and the climate science is overwhelmingly agreed. But there are dark forces working against positive social change which include some corporations working on a last-century fossil-fuel-driven agenda, some nations working on a purely nationalistic agenda, and humankind’s apprehension of change and uncertainty.

The best of Rio+20 gives us an agenda for the next few years, but the lack of positive action is very worrying.


Professor Malcolm McIntosh is an international leader in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable enterprise. Malcolm pioneered the teaching of corporate responsibility and sustainability in business and management schools in the UK, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and has been involved in publishing numerous books and articles in this area and producing documentary films for the BBC. He has been a Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General’s Global Compact, and has worked for UNEP, the ILO and UNDP and many global corporations,including Shell, BP and Pfizer and has served on the stakeholder advisory boards of ABB, the BBC and AccountAbility. He has also worked for a number of INGOs and been an adviser to the governments of the UK, Norway and Canada on CSR public policy.

Malcolm is the current Director for the Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise at Griffith University, Queensland. He is the co-author of SEE Change, New Perspectives on Human Security and Something to Believe In. A full list of Malcolm’s publications with Greenleaf can be found on our website.


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