Sustainability shifts to shoulders of business, education and civil society

The United Nations three-day Rio+20 conference on sustainability ended on Friday in widespread disappointment and the sense that an important opportunity had been missed. The outcome document was agreed before leaders even arrived, giving the event the feel of a photo moment rather than a real attempt to push forward the sustainability agenda.

However, despite the feeling that not enough has been achieved since the Earth Summit was held in the same city 20 years ago, the participation of NGOs, academics, students and civil society is a substantial development that was frequently applauded at the conference.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, gave an impassioned speech at a Rio+20 side-event on youth innovation.

Speaking to a packed room of students and NGO workers he called for today’s youth to “embrace the challenge” of sustainability and to use imagination and innovation to create a “new way of doing things”.

The realisation that the move towards sustainable development must come from business, the education system and civil society is a radical shift that has occurred since the Earth Summit in 1992. Sachs was keen to stress that this move was what Rio+20 will be remembered for.

“This has to be the generation of sustainable development – you have no other choice,” he said to loud applause.

Government, according to Sachs, is ill suited to the radical changes needed to achieve a more sustainable future.

“The change will not come from a room of diplomats,” he said, also bemoaning that international treaties had for too long been little more than “an industry for lawyers”.

Key to this vision is a focus on the sustainable development goals, known as SDGs – global objectives that countries agree to pursue, but which are not legally binding. These must be clearly stated and easily remembered, according to Sachs.

“They should decorate the walls of every primary classroom and be part of secondary and university education,” he said.

It is through becoming embedded in public consciousness that these goals will be achieved and a new way of framing development will emerge through a generation that has been brought up understanding their importance.

Technology, especially social media, will play a vital role in this educative process, enabling a global conversation to heighten awareness and breed new ideas, Sachs explained.

At the same event Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen micro-finance bank, said that technology had made today’s youth “the most powerful generation ever”. He added that young people were “hungry for change” and called for their representation in the United Nations, as it is their future that is at stake in this debate.

Dr Romulo Paes de Sousa, a senior international associate at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University in the UK and a moderator and speaker at the conference, also warned against drawing quick conclusions about the achievements of Rio+20.

He stressed the positive debates and interactions that he had witnessed over the week.

“After the Earth Summit in 1992 the media was also negative and now 20 years on it is held up as a great success,” he told University World News in an interview.

De Sousa, who was previously vice-minister for social development in Brazil, was part of a strong Institute of Development Studies contingent involved at various levels of the Rio+20 conference.

“Universities have an important role at these conferences in providing the evidence for the debate,” he said. “Academics are involved both in advising and in advocacy.”

One example De Sousa gave of this relationship with public policy was the Brazilian Economic and Social Development Council, which acts as an intermediary between the government and society on issues of sustainability, working to inform government decisions through extensive debate and research with civil society.

The presence of academics at political conferences such as Rio+20 is beneficial both through what they add, and also what they learn, De Sousa explained. “They can be influential, but it is also an opportunity to be updated on what is happening around the world.”

Rio+20 “is just the beginning”, De Sousa said. “The game continues.”