Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


the changing debate ten years on from Rio

July 2002

Business will play a major role in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, with partnership and accountability emerging as key themes

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, business had a minimal presence. The representative from the Business Council for Sustainable Development, which had only just been set up, operated with a laptop out of a small hotel room.

This time round, things will be very different. Thousands of business delegates are expected at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, which takes place 26 August-4 September in Johannesburg, and a designated ‘business day’ will include sessions on transparency, reporting standards, social dialogue and corporate social responsibility.

Environmental issues will take centre stage as most summit negotiators come from that background and report to environment ministries.

Bryce Corbett, spokesman for Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), a joint initiative of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce, said: ‘There are already more companies wanting to participate in the business day than we have spaces for – it’s oversubscribed in terms of speakers.’ BASD is guided by a steering committee headed by Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group.

At first sight, this enthusiasm seems paradoxical. A recent paper prepared for the Johannesburg summit by the United Nations Environment Programme identified ‘a growing gap’ between business efforts to reduce their environmental impact and ‘the worsening state of the planet.’

This record has, however, to be set against the abject failure of governments to turn the commitments they made at Rio into reality. The convention on climate change remains unratified and Rio’s other outcomes – a convention on biodiversity, principles for the sustainable management of forests, Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development – have made slow progress.

So the focus has shifted. In the jargon, these ‘Type 1’ outcomes, which have to be exhaustively negotiated and agreed by all governments, are losing ground to ‘Type 2’ outcomes – partnerships between government agencies, companies and non-governmental organizations.

These lack the clout of a ratified international convention but can to some extent do the job. They are also flexible: the partners decide what they want to achieve, run the partnership and review their own performance. Crucially, they allow companies to present themselves as part of the solution and not part of the problem, as they were cast at Rio.

BASD and the United Nations Development Programme are jointly inviting companies to present their partnerships on sustainable development for inclusion in a ‘Virtual Exhibition’ of video presentations to be broadcast at summit venues and on the web. A selection panel made up of business, non-governmental organizations and UN representatives is considering submissions from dozens of companies in the fields of water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity.

Corbett points out that the Kyoto protocol may be stalled, but business is helping to tackle climate change by partnering energy projects ranging from a global initiative to reduce gas flaring at oil refineries, to increasing access to propane for villagers in West Africa in a partnership involving a trade body, the World Bank and national governments.

On biodiversity, the 17 partnerships identified by BASD include the Rio Tinto and Earthwatch Institute Partnership, which aims, among other things, to collect scientific data and to help meet objectives set out in the Agenda 21 Action Plan and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Being involved in a successful partnership, however, does not protect a company against accusations of greenwashing, which were widespread at Rio.

At Johannesburg, pressure groups say they will focus on calling governments to account, but companies will be drawn into the crossfire. Greenpeace will call for international agreements to make corporations ‘criminally and financially liable for industrial disasters’.

With 65,000 delegates, 45 world leaders so far confirmed, hundreds of parallel events and an ambitious agenda in which corporate social responsibility, environment and development intermingle, it is worth remembering the summit is at bottom a giant talking shop.

Yet there is a new confidence among business. ‘I think we are taking a lot of responsibility for dealing with [sustainable development] issues, where some governments aren’t’, said Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. An unthinkable comment ten years ago.


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