50,000 participants and 130 heads of state are touted to be in Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Most appear happy to be here. But many of those who were also in Rio 20 years ago are anything but.
This is, after all, one of the most beautiful cities in the world inhabited by millions of the best hosts one can imagine. Guests of the city are concentrated in approximately 15 hotels that are within a stone's throw of the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and Barra da Tijuca. How can anyone be disappointed?
A generational perspective can be instructive.
First, there is a large contingent of generally young and optimistic participants here for whom the 1992 Earth Summit exists only on paper rather than in memory. Many of them are looking for a career that aligns with their values and an Earth Summit is a networking opportunity that comes around only too rarely. It helps that dinners run late and the bars never close. I'll leave here with a deck of unsolicited CVs and a flood of LinkedIn invitations in my email.
Next are the established professionals who are driven to attend by varying combinations of personal, political and professional interests. I count myself among this group. I come on business with a vast supply of my organization's polling data on what the world wants not only from the conference this week, but from the decades that will follow. It's all on-topic with the conference's theme of "the future we want." And the future I want, too.
What I'm observing is not promising. Hosted by the United Nations Global Compact, some 3,000 people (myself included) are spending most of their time away from the Rio Centro in the Windsor Barra hotel talking about the role of the private sector in the transformation to global sustainability. Such high levels of interest bode well. The problem is, these same people do the same thing at conferences every year. This gathering is no different.
Companies that have made inroads are telling their stories and sharing case studies. UN agencies and academics are explaining, again, the basics of life cycle analysis. Powerful statistics continue to open speeches (we consume 1.6 planets and need to get back to 1.0, it may be too late to limit warming to 2 degrees, we produce enough food to feed 9 billion but waste so much that we leave 1 billion hungry). Yet we've heard all this before and all in the same format. Many of the world's most capable organizations appear to have been stuck in the same gear for at least a decade. The problems outside their doors are still real.
Meanwhile, official delegations are behind closed doors and decidedly absent from the millions of conversations that are happening around the city. From all reports, they are instead doing their best to find the lowest common denominator upon which to base a Rio Declaration next weekend.
Before the summit, our global consumer polling returned numbers showing that nearly everyone in 17 countries surveyed wanted their governments to endorse at least moderately progressive international commitments at the conference, and most of those called for more ambitious leadership from their delegates. People were critical of companies' performance to date, and especially of those same governments they ironically hoped would act at Rio+20.
More poll results showed that the notion of a green economy was captivating and particularly to those in emerging markets. Sustainability experts surveyed saw Rio+20 as a huge opportunity and some were cautiously optimistic, especially if it were to be conducive to the formation of cross-sectoral partnerships.
Conversations among those fortunate enough to attend incline me instead toward cautious pessimism. One educator from Sri Lanka spoke to me about bad policy that forces young children to change schools after their first year. These six-year-olds then need to walk 5 km to another school and many are lost from the education system as a result. South Africans I chatted with were frustrated that the term sustainable development is too often understood as environmental protection and not social equity. Peruvians I met described how weighty decision making about mining development is complicated by ideological polarization, suppressing creative solution finding. Local citizens were asking me why I was at the conference in the first place.
So, even though we arrived with low expectations and hesitate to condemn the effort before the outcome, many of us here on the ground are already disappointed (I'll put the topic of transportation logistics aside for now).
None are more frustrated than those who made the 1992 summit the milestone it was. Many of that pioneering generation are here, and they wish there was no need to be. Maurice Strong, the first Executive Director for UNEP and the Secretary General of the 1992 conference is said to be, to put it mildly, not happy. Gro Harlem Brundtland, author of the report that put sustainable development on the international agenda, is also attending. I would wager that she sees the fact that Rio+20 is happening at all as a stamp of failure upon the last 20 years of global leadership. She'd rather have higher priorities.
So, will responsibility for our common future fall upon the twenty- and thirty-somethings who are here enjoying Rio the most? Unless those of us now at the top of the demographic bell curve can turn the tide quickly, the burden will have fall upon them.
And if we need another reunion in the form of Rio+40, I suggest the host city be Fort McMurry in Alberta, Canada, home to the world's best oil sands and not the world's best beaches. Should we all put it on our calendars now--shall we say February 13 2032? Maybe that will inspire us to avoid the necessity of yet another Earth Summit.