Sustainability in our time

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I read a piece this week using Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” speech as an analogy for the “Future We Want” document that emerged from the Rio +20 Conference. It seems apt. The final paper at the summit suggested that “sustained development” (not the blue economy; not sustainable development; not even an end to fossil fuel subsidies) is the solution to climate change. That our political leaders met to find a solution to climate change and committed to the myopic course of action that has brought us into peril in the first place is the most shameful and dangerous abdication of collective political responsibility since failing to ask Hitler what he planned to do with all those Panzer tanks.

Many have pronounced a multilateral solution to climate change as dead. One of the more interesting developments at this summit was the increased engagement of big business. The profoundly disappointing efforts of government to produce anything relevant has re-focused many on the role of business in tackling climate change. So what might that role be?

Jeffry Sachs has quite concisely articulated the benefits and drawbacks of business’ current role in society; and it seems a sensible place to identify the particular areas business can engage in. First, the core strength of business over the past century has been in getting things done. Nobody is better placed today to create solutions to the climate challenge than organisations like Shell, Siemans and GE. Not only do they have the financial capital to make things happen, but they have some of the smartest, innovative minds in the world, and world class R&D processes designed to produce tangible results.

The most positive development in this space at Rio was the emergence of the Friends of Rio group, looking at multi-stakeholder collaboration and whole systems change. Combining business’ funding and delivery focus with Civil Society organisations’ values and experience with non-monetary deliverables, the possibilities are intriguing.

Secondly, there is the question of separating business from politics and stopping business from writing its own rules. In the words of Peter Bakker, we need to “change the way we think about business performance and align the business with the world we want to create”. At the moment, this charge is being led by an “enlightened few,” including the likes of Unilever and Puma. Businesses need to start thinking this way themselves and must be open to regulation in this space.

Tragic as the failure of the multinational process at Rio is; if the scale of the shortcomings is enough to force a “crowding in” effect from big business, Trade Unions and other non-traditional stakeholders, then perhaps all is not lost.

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