This week, 50,000 delegates will gather in Rio de Janiero for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. While the slogan is ambitious — “the future we want,” in comparison to the first Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992, the goals of this twentieth anniversary celebration are modest. As Andrea Correa de Lago, Brazil’s head of environment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and chief negotiator on climate change, said last February, “It is not an idealistic conference, we are not going to say we are saving the planet through goals and measures that we know are not going to be taken seriously.”
Rather, the opportunity for this meeting is to create a framework for longer term discussion about how best to promote a sustainability agenda. One difference for this year’s conference compared to 1992 will be the active participation of city governments, NGOs, and the private sector. As a result, said Rodrigo Rosa, Rio+20 coordinator at Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor’s Office, “Rio+20’s strength will not be inside the offices, but in the movement. This year we’ll have a great amount of parallel events that didn’t happen in 1992. Politicians are reactive, they take decisions after there’s will in civil society. I think Rio+20 will contribute to that.”
For public health activists seeking to build a movement for sustainability, Rio+20 provides an opportunity to consider the causes and solutions to two of the gravest threats to global sustainability: human-induced climate change and the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and respiratory conditions. A recent report in Lancet summarizes the connections between climate change and NCDs, arguing that many of the world’s “development goals have not been achieved partly because social (including health), economic, and environmental priorities have not been addressed in an integrated manner.”
As Manish Bapna, Acting President and Executive Vice President & Managing Director of the World Resources Institute recently observed, developing effective strategies to achieve more sustainable economic growth requires addressing two related trends:
- The rise of the multinational corporations. Having grown dramatically in size, reach, and number in recent decades, global corporations wield increasing influence over the environment and society. Global supply chains only magnify their role. Today, what happens in a factory in China, South Africa, or Thailand can reverberate around the planet.
- The expansion of the global middle class. Exploding growth in the developing world has created a vast new middle class, which could near five billion by 2030, of whom 66 percent will live in Asia. That is a lot of new consumers. How will they live, eat, shop, and get to work? Will they emulate the worst habits of the developed world, or will they embrace a role as better stewards of the planet?
In fact, the rise of both NCDs and global warming in the last few decades can be explained in significant part by the efforts of multinational corporations in the automobile, energy, food and beverage, tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical and other industries to target these emerging middle classes in China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere for their brand of hyper consumption. As markets become saturated in developed nations, these new markets are the corporations’ hope for profitability in this century. But the lifestyle that corporations promote to achieve their business goals is itself a fundamental cause of unsustainable energy use and chronic diseases. Its remedy requires changing not individual behavior but corporate practices. As the Third World Network, an NGO in Malaysia, put it in their Rio+20 briefing paper, “If governments want to enable sustainable development, then they must regulate transnational corporations who are drivers of unsustainable development.”
In past global meetings, much of the focus has been on what governments can and should do, an important and appropriate topic of discussion. But it is equally important to ask what corporations cannot do if sustainable growth is to be achieved. A Lancet editorial hopes that in the future, Rio+20 “is looked upon as launching a new era for human wellbeing, one that is rooted in principles of equity, social justice, and sustainability.” Achieving that goal will require a willingness to reconsider the role of multinational corporations in today’s world. Rio+ 20 will be judged on its progress in this critical task.