World leaders and government representatives convened in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Developmen

World leaders and government representatives convened in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Developmen

This week world leaders and government representatives convened in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, taking place 20 years after the 'Earth Summit' of 1992. Ben Cooper reflects on Rio+20.

Given the horridly unseasonal weather in northern Europe for the last couple of months, delegates from that part of the world may have been forgiven for contemplating a change of climate rather than climate change as they rolled down to Rio for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development which closes today (22 June).

The conference has been officially dubbed Rio+20 as it marks the 20th anniversary of the Rio 'Earth Summit', arguably the key setting-off point for much of the progress on environmental sustainability made possible during the last two decades by the actions of governments, companies and not least consumers.

Some observers have noted the contrast in prevailing attitudes towards the two conferences. Twenty years ago there was, in spite of the parlous situation the world found itself in, a spirit optimism, of a world coming together to address a challenge that could only be tackled collectively. Precisely the sort of thing the UN was created to do, in fact.

The fact that the situation may be even graver today speaks to the level of challenge that was faced in 1992 and the fact that even then we were acting alarmingly late in the day. But looking at the policy agendas of governments and the strategies of major corporations, which prioritise sustainability in a way that would have basically been unimaginable in the 1980s, few would deny that the world is better equipped to take on the challenges of climate change than it was in 1992.

Yet ironically, there is little of the same optimism in evidence. This may reflect the scale of the challenge, and the fact that any progress that has been made represents no more than a good start. The downbeat atmosphere may also have much to do with the world economic situation and particularly what is happening in Europe. In the face of immediate crisis, long-term planning tends to suffer. 

The difficulties in Europe account for the non-attendance of David Cameron and Angela Merkel among others, while a delegation from the European Parliament cancelled their trip. Barack Obama also chose not to come. While things have moved on in the past 20 years, attendance at an environmental conference is never going to be seen as a compelling use of any US president's time in an election year.

The non-attendance of so many heads of governments clearly reduces the impact of the conference and adds to a prevailing cynicism. At the last count, only 95 national leaders were scheduled to attend. 

All that said, resulting from the conference will be a declaration signed by the member states endorsing a set of Sustainable Development Goals. 

In typical UN style, the declaration document is hardly pithy, after extensive pre-conference discussion extending to some 128 paragraphs, and it has not been met with that much enthusiasm.

Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, said the document represented "a failure of leadership". UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described the outcome of the conference as "insipid", while Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was also critical. 

Friends of the Earth International referred to the declaration as "a gift to corporate polluters", and said it would do "nothing to address the environmental and social crises that the world is facing". Those who welcomed the declaration mostly did so in a qualified, 'step in the right direction' way.

Adding a little grist to the Friends of the Earth mill, the response from the corporate sector has been rather more positive.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman said in an interview with the Guardian that the final declaration had "a lot of good elements" and particularly welcomed the increasing role envisaged for business". However he said the document lacked "specificity, clear dates, funding and accountability".

Along with the government entourages officially attending the conference come all the other stakeholders, notably from the NGO and corporate sectors, to attend accompanying events and to put their views across to the gathered policymakers.

At this late stage, such activity is not likely to change the outcome of the conference. What it certainly provides is a high-profile platform for these stakeholders' views. For example, from the food sector Unilever CEO Paul Polman was a key speaker at the launch of the Natural Capital Declaration during the conference.

PepsiCo, along with 44 other companies, participated in the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum, convened by the UN Global Compact, which sought to advance the scale and quality of corporate sustainability activities, notably with regard to water stewardship.

Their attendance in Rio is corporate advocacy writ large, the leading representatives of companies putting over their views at an extremely high-profile event. But it is also about the corporate sector seeking to set the agenda. In fact, it is more about the corporate sector retaining control of the agenda. For it could be argued that the major corporations have been the key driving forces in this space for some time, and it is their actions that have effected some of the most critical change certainly during the second decade since the Earth Summit.

That is not to say that the UN is an irrelevance. Not least it can and does foster real change in policy at a national government level. But what companies like Unilever and PepsiCo offer - the advantage that companies always proffer when advocating self-regulation - is speed.

Speaking to just-food in April, Polman said although government intervention is needed, he believed business could go further and faster on sustainability issues, with politicians "tied up in election cycles".

And, in an interview this week with The Guardian, Polman talked of a "critical mass" of companies with shared objectives on sustainability, and stressed how business can provide what the politicians meeting in Rio cannot in terms of collaborative, immediate, tangible projects.

Corporate actions may be qualified, may be tempered by their need to be economically sustainable for the companies themselves but they represent direct action on the ground. 

Importantly also, they bring consumers with them, because by definition they have to in order to make such activity viable. NGOs understand the value of public engagement, and partnerships between NGOs and big business are becoming ever more common. 

Some NGOs, such as WWF, realised the value of this some time ago and have adopted a particularly positive attitude towards corporate partnership. Another example of such collaboration, in the social rather than environmental space, can be seen in the Fairtrade movement. These successes - not necessarily universally hailed as such by all campaigners but generally welcomed - are likely to spawn further collaboration between the corporate and NGO sectors.

Polman's views speak both to the perceived weakness of government action and what he and many others believe the corporate sector can and will offer.

"We are entering a very interesting period of history where the responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians," he said. "The political climate is very difficult and to some extent paralysed. As with many change programmes, when you create some success around some specific tangible projects, it will attract others. There are leaders and followers and laggards in everything."