Rathbone Greenbank Investments
Rio+20: Agreeing to an agreement, but can we afford to wait?
20 years on from the pioneering Rio conference, the UN gathered representatives from government, business and civil society to shape the world’s response to the global challenges we all face. In 1992, attendees agreed to adopt Agenda 21, intended as ‘a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection’. Were there any such concrete outcomes from the latest Rio conference on sustainable development?
The answer depends on who you talk to. If the UN and the Brazilian Government are to be believed, the conference was a great success. NGOs, environmental groups and development charities beg to differ. The final document agreed by the parties is entitled “The Future We Want”. Its 53 pages of text reaffirm much of what preceded the Rio+20 conference, but offers little in terms of fresh ideas to drive the kind of balanced, environmentally and socially sustainable development which the parties hope for.
Of the few clear decisions made, the conference agreed to the development of the ‘sustainable development goals’ (SDGs) intended to replace the Millennium Development Goals which will expire in 2015. This has been agreed only in principle, with no detail or guidance given at the conference. The task of developing the SDGs will be delegated to a working group for presentation in 2013.
Commentators from civil society have lamented the failure of the UN model in negotiating firm, legally binding commitments as regards environmental sustainability. When taken with the vague outcome of the UNFCCC conference late last year, many perceive that the UN model of negotiation is incapable of delivering the kind of firm agreement on issues of global goods that we all need.
In the midst of this pessimism, others see glimpses of hope. If the governments of the world will not step up and agree to firm legally binding commitments on sustainability, then other actors must put themselves forward. Most notably, the private sector gained much attention. Many companies made very public commitments on issues directly affecting their businesses. However, some commentators suggest that the niche commitments of companies in some areas will never fill the need for an overarching, strategic vision for global sustainable development. Others see a future for the UN gatherings purely in the ‘show and tell’ nature of their operation.
Numerous figures from the UK were keen to promote more advanced corporate reporting of environmental and social performance as a means of driving sustainable development. Led by the insurer, Aviva, a great many UK investors including Rathbone Greenbank backed the move. In the final event, a paragraph on corporate reporting was included in the outcome document, encouraging ’companies, where appropriate, especially publicly listed and large companies, to consider integrating sustainability information into their reporting cycle.’ (Paragraph 47).
At Rathbone Greenbank, we have long been supporters of integrated financial, social and environmental reporting. The highest scores in our research methodology are reserved for those companies which treat social and environmental risks with the same degree of attention as financial ones. Our programme of company engagement encourages companies in which we invest to adopt precisely such systems of non-financial reporting. In the absence of true global leadership on sustainable development issues, those companies with global footprints which are prepared to innovate in this area must be supported.