Rio+20: 5 key takeaways

The three-day United Nations sustainability conference, Rio+20, wraps up today, after leaders and diplomats from over 190 countries gathered to define how a “green economy” would provide a sustainable path with social inclusion. But the conference has been largely overshadowed by criticism for its perceived lack of vision, leadership, and concrete action.

But the entire conference didn’t take place under a giant dark cloud, say delegates. It’s important to look beyond the actual rhetoric of the gathering, and focus on what was accomplished on the sidelines, says Jim Shultz, the head of the social and environmental advocacy group the Democracy Center in Bolivia, who was in Rio leading educational workshops.   

Here are some of the promising developments and bigger disappointments of the mega-meeting:

Public and private sector investment

Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at The Nature Conservancy, says that the meetings he has attended on the sidelines of the Rio+20 showed a clear recognition on the part of governments and companies that they must invest in “natural capital.” At a meeting sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, for example, Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono said that for the sake of food security, oceans must be protected. And the company FEMSA, for example, is investing in ecowater funds in Brazil.

“Many of the businesses here are recognizing that environmental degradation can be a major business risk if they don't deal with it,” Mr. Deutz says.

Tensie Whelan, the president of the Rainforest Alliance, and Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, reiterate this idea in a Reuters blog about what the private sector is accomplishing, and what more can be done with additional support from governments. “In the years since the first Earth Summit, businesses and NGOs like ours have been working to scale up sustainable resource use and engage producers and communities worldwide,” the authors write. “Our efforts are quietly transforming global markets. Three percent of the world’s working forests, 10 percent of the world’s tea production and 15 percent of the world’s bananas are under sustainable management certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Ten percent of the entire global economy now operates under some form of sustainability standards. And these numbers are growing rapidly.”

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