Sustainability was the topic of the day at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, which ended 22 June 2012. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was intended as a forum to promote sustainable development, poverty eradication, and the green economy while addressing current environmental and ecological challenges. Although minor agreements were reached, staunch advocates for social and environmental justice worry that the lack of a detailed, decisive blueprint for future actions will result in a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

The Rio+20 Summit included discussion of many ideas that could foster a sustainable 21st century. Some notable developments from the summit include:

  • Sustainable Development Goals that complement the Millennium Development Goals are intended to help developed and emerging nations set congruent goals for addressing environmental challenges.
  • The World Congress on Justice, Governance, and Law for Environmental Sustainability pledged to pursue sustainable outcomes using legislation and to press for adherence to environmental treaties.
  • The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will be enhanced by an increased budget and expanded membership.
  • A recommendation that Gross Domestic Product as a narrow indicator of prosperity be replaced by a more inclusive term that accounts for critical ecosystems along with human and produced capital.
  • The Sustainable Public Procurement Initiative was launched to increase public spending on goods and services that “maximize environmental and social benefits,” as a way to support these eco-industries, conserve money and resources, and spur job creation.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) also released a new report, Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Basis of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems, during the summit. The report shines a spotlight on the often-overlooked idea of ecosystem health and its importance to food production.

Currently, global ecosystems that support agriculture and fishing are approaching collapse due to various threats, including climate change, scarcity and diminishing quality of water, loss of biodiversity and habitat, and overfishing. However, if sustainable practices that maintain ecosystems or allow them to recover were put in place, environments would not be as stressed. The report proffers that ecosystem stewardship incentives and other economic strategies may encourage the incorporation of sustainable practices (e.g. soil and nutrient management, fishing quota adherence) into food systems. Additional changes that could stave off ecosystem degradation are dietary changes, reducing pollution, and minimizing food waste.

The notion of food security is not new to UNEP, but previous attempts to address it have focused on steady food availability and access. This report acknowledges that ecology and the environment “prop up the whole food system” and should be preserved as the ultimate basis for food security. UNEP Chief Scientist Joseph Alcamo asserts, “We won’t have enough food…unless we find out a way to produce it sustainably without destroying its ecological foundation.”

On 19 June 2012, the UNEP Finance Initiative released the Principles for Sustainable Insurance. Supported by twenty-seven founding insurance companies from fifteen countries, the Principles aim to address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in risk management and decision-making.

Operating under the belief that ESG challenges will only intensify in the future, the industry acknowledges it must adopt an innovative, long-term approach to account for and cope with problems such as climate change, food security, and emerging pandemics. The Principles are a set of guidelines that will allow insurance companies to anticipate these hazards, and work to minimize them in the future.

To achieve this, the Principles describe four strategies that insurers can use to incentivize the transition to a sustainable world. These strategies are: represent ESG issues in decision-making; raise awareness among clients; work with stakeholders such as governments and regulators; and disclose progress annually.

The UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, sums up the potential of the Principles as such: “The UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative has been exploring the possibility of establishing sustainability principles for the global insurance industry that can catalyze and amplify transformational change…. We need to green our economies, build resilient communities, deliver wider ranging social outcomes, and better conserve our forests, freshwaters and other critical ecosystems. The Principles for Sustainable Insurance are a foundation upon which the insurance industry and society as a whole can build a stronger relationship—one that puts sustainability at the heart of risk management in pursuit of a more forward-looking and better managed world.”

Once again, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) seized on the media opportunity created by the Summit to mock President Obama and the United Nations. An event held by the conservative Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow aired a video of Senator Inhofe (R-OK) accusing President Obama of playing both sides during the election year: trying to support fossil fuel development domestically to win re-election, while secretly embracing a “radical” climate change agenda.

Although Obama was notably absent from the international conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended. One aide to Obama argued that his absence should not undermine how much the U.S. is focused on sustainable global development.

 


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