Will Rio+20 deliver the" future we want?"

Richard Gledhill, partner, PwC Sustainability & Climate Change rounds up the progress at Rio, and previews its legacy

Instead of binding treaties, the best we can hope for from Rio + 20 is a  road map, and a rather unusual one at that, where the destination isn’t really clear, so goodness knows how long it will take up to get there or, indeed, whether that is where we will want to be, when we finally do get there.

The legacy could be of sustainability emerging more as a consumer issue, particularly as Europe comes out of recession. But all of this is underpinned by a clearer business case for green growth and sustainable development, primarily in lesser developed countries.

It isn’t over till it’s over....

Veterans of UN summits will know that it is very difficult to call the result, right until the bitter end. And my goodness, in recent times, some of these ends certainly have been bitter.

It shouldn’t be like that of course. It is all carefully stage managed, for months or even years. The negotiating text is developed in a series of pre-meetings. Critical issues are flagged up early, political groups take sides, tussle and trade, or bluster and block, with the aim of producing a half decent document that everyone can buy into, by the start of high level segment, in the final days of the summit.

That’s when the heads of government, the presidents and prime ministers, fly in, say their piece and, in a flurry of flash photography, we have a deal.

Except, too often, it isn’t like that. These environmental negotiations are increasingly complex – more like discussions at the WTO.  Positions are too entrenched for the negotiators to push the agenda, and so ministers and presidents have to roll up their sleeves, work long into the night, and reach down into that proverbial UN hat, groping for elusive rabbits. 

And even then, it is increasingly difficult to say whether these summits have been a success until some time after the fact. Take the UN climate conference in Copenhagen for example - universally panned as a disaster at the time, because public and press expectations had got way ahead of political practicality. But with the benefit of hindsight, Copenhagen laid the groundwork for progress at Cancun and last year’s Durban Platform.  And perhaps Durban wasn’t the success many thought it was at the time.

So, will this new Rio Earth Summit deliver “the future we want”? And, indeed, just at the moment, does anyone really care? With some much grim news about, it’s certainly hard to find much detailed coverage of the event. Soundbites swing between “the past year of negotiation has been a colossal waste of time” to “Not the best agreement in the world, but an agreement for a better world.” Is your glass half full or is your glass half empty?

So what is the temperature in the business community in Rio? The PwC team at the conference, say the mood in the business camp was surprisingly upbeat. What have they got to be positive about?

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