GSO Commentary — Gearing up for Rio+20 with disparate messages on the social pillar of sustainability

The preparations for the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development (to be held on 20 to 22 June 2012) have some disparate messages about the social and economic pillars to complement the environmental pillar.  We hear a lot of talk, of course, that sustainable development needs to balance these three pillars, but we are aware that the main preparations for the Rio+20 Summit are nonetheless in the hands of the environmental decision-makers who don’t necessarily have the networks or mandates to integrate the economic and social perspectives.  The UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report Office sought to correct this with a special Global Human Development Forum last week, with the UNDP Bureau of Development Policy and the Turkish Ministry of Development and an “Istanbul Declaration” that asserts the linkages between global social inequities and environmental deterioration.  See the Declaration here. The 200 or so invited experts to this Forum were in agreement that social inclusion, social protection and equity need to be priorities at the Rio+20 Summit, “in recognition of the fact that economic development has too often gone hand in hand with environmental degradation and increasing inequalities”.  The implication is that both social and economic inequalities within and among nations are aggravating environmental risks and degradation, and vice versa.  This also seems to be the thrust of the message coming from various NGOs organizing side events in New York during the preparatory process for a parallel “People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice” during the Rio+20 Summit.

Somehow this doesn’t quite get at the economic pillar other than to condemn economic development as something that has contributed to both environmental degradation and social inequalities.  While there are understandable global concerns about the phenomenon of growing social inequalities and also about the need to develop sustainable environmental policies to combat climate change, declining biodiversity, water scarcity, etc., the absence of any separate attention in these deliberations to a sustainable economic pillar as such is rather disconcerting.   We do know, of course, that the business community is being encouraged to participate in its own “Corporate Sustainability Forum” on 15 to 18 June in Rio, but even the UN Secretary-General has acknowledged that the “principles of sustainability” have yet to penetrate business strategy and those that are engaged in practicing corporate sustainability are a small percentage of the world’s enterprises.  See his remarks here.  It is encouraging that governments are proposing in the “zero draft” for the Summit that both public and private sources are needed for financing sustainable development and that there needs to be a central role for the private sector.  See excellent reporting by the IISD Reporting Services on these negotiations and related side events here.  And the Business Action for Sustainable Development is co-hosting with four diplomatic missions (Benin, Barbados, Netherlands and Vietnam) a lunchtime discussion on 26 March at the UN in New York to promote a dialogue between business and governments.    But more seems to be needed on putting some meaning to the economic pillar – and finding ways for all of these groups to interact with each other rather than having their own separate forums.