The Risk-Monger

Rio+20 ended as promised: as a colossal failure. As I tell my Entrepreneurship students, you can learn a lot from your failures … unless, of course, you are the UN, and you believe that failure is part of a process upon which to build your next platform. Fascinating, really.

Outside of the UN being our global “cat herder”, what lessons should they have learnt from the Rio+20 failure?

Do not let environmental NGOs hijack the process

The problem here is that sustainable development is not principally about windmills and environmentalist dreams of organic food and no plastics; it is about development and ensuring equity and justice for the poorest who need to develop their economies. The G 77 (Group of 77 developing countries) saw through the clever schemes built into the “Green Economy” and upended the process (wanting a timetable to phase out fossil fuels … really now!). Frankly the earlier working documents looked a little like the Occupy Wall St manifesto, incorporating anything and everything. While the environmentalists are busy blaming others for the failure of Rio – the UN should look clearly at root causes of their influence bias rather than continuing to support these activists and build further failure on the weak foundations of their idealism. WWF’s Jim Leape’s outrage in a Tweet said it best: “If this becomes final text, the past year of negotiations has been a colossal waste of time.” Rule number one for lobbyists like the WWF: You can’t always get what you want (even if you have 690 million Swiss francs to invest in the process)!

Do not let opportunist countries embarrass you

Only two countries fully supported the idea of upgrading UNEP: Kenya and France. One need not look too hard to see that these two countries are UNEP’s main mailing addresses. Instead of continually trying to push some sort of global planetary stewardship programme, try to learn that environmental concerns are generally local first. I may think about things like world water systems or global warming, but I am more concerned about the pollution in the stream that goes by my house. Furthermore, the UN did not see that global economic decline always trumps global environmental concerns. In the end, despite all of the anti-globalisation criticisms, countries, not companies, railroaded the process. The UN was perhaps too blindsided by environmental activist campaigns (inside UNEP as well) to have seen that.

If the IPCC is perceived as a failure, don’t propose a similar body for sustainability

As I had argued in several recent blogs, the idea of defining sustainability is already very hard, subject to different narratives and without any factual foundations (it’s anecdotal). The UN’s lazy idea of gathering scientists to produce consensus reports would only succeed in damaging the reputation of science even more than the IPCC has already managed to do. Sure, researchers will take your money and add “UN author” to their bios, but then what? The “high level forum” that the final “Future we want” document settles for (in place of the IPCC-like nightmare scenario) might provide a nice talking shop to come to a better shared understanding of what sustainable development is, but little more.

Cut your losses next time and cancel the show

A registry of voluntary commitments to sustainability … that’s it? Is that the main achievement of over a year of preparations – a website that records sustainability commitments from companies and governments? It is ironic how all the environmentalists and reality haters like Corporate Europe Observatory are going around Rio blaming corporate lobbying, when, in the end, routine corporate CSR commitments become the only success factor the UN can claim amid government timidity. There was every indication that Rio+20 would be a failure … well before the European Parliament pulled out, well before Obama decided he had more important things to do, well before the G77 talks broke down… Why not make a bold statement and cancel the event and push the countries to go back to the drawing board. I suspect the UN has a sort of legitimacy insecurity complex, fearing that cancelling the event would look like a failure. True, but having everyone come to a global event that would end in a well-forecasted failure doesn’t improve your legitimacy. Learn from your failures, don’t celebrate them.

No wonder the UN is having a hard time attracting talented individuals. Maybe they will get some common sense for Rio+40.

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