It has been impossible to avoid the glut of criticism from green NGOs and politicians left deeply disappointed by the lack of ambition on display at the Rio +20 Earth summit last week.
However, business leaders maintain that that while the so-called “Future We Want” is unlikely to deliver sweeping economic and environmental changes on its own, it could still mark a turning point for the green growth agenda.
Malcolm Preston, global lead for sustainability and climate change at PwC, said that during the summit United Nations leaders effectively passed the baton of responsibility for building the green economy to the business community.
He said the text would only achieve successes if governments worked in tandem with businesses to drive the green growth agenda forward, predicting that as a result of the summit we will see an increasing number of public-private green project partnerships formed over the coming years.
According to UN figures, governments and companies made 692 individual pledges during the summit, totalling $513bn (£330bn) of investment in projects aimed at boosting sustainable resource management. It is the one area where the summit can be compared favourably with the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where no corporations were present and few investment pledges were made.
One of the more ambitious pledges was an announcement by the US government to partner with more than 400 companies and brands in the Consumer Goods Forum to achieve zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.
The two parties agreed on Thursday that they would meet in Washington in the next 100 days to discuss how to achieve this goal, which would focus in particular on commodities such as soy, palm oil, paper, and beef that are thought to be responsible for half of the world’s deforestation.
Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, said the agreement showed the importance of businesses and governments collaborating on boosting the sustainability agenda.
“Individually both governments and business have already mobilised significant resources to address the challenge of deforestation but we all recognise that much more can be achieved if we align our efforts and work in partnership,” he said.
Preston added that this ambitious goal would require companies to start this year to meet the demanding target of delivering zero net deforestation by 2020.
“The implications of this commitment are huge as it requires eliminating deforestation in packaging, production, the use of raw materials for the member companies of CGF,” he said, adding that it would also put pressure on countries such as China, which currently have limited demand for sustainable palm oil.
“It’s really pushing towards a segregated supply chain, rather than using certification schemes,” he said. “With the speed that technology is advancing, it is not unrealistic that we will be able to trace it all by 2020, however whether there is sufficient volume so we could achieve these targets is another question.”
The summit also gave the go ahead to the creation of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are expected to compliment the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. However, it remains unclear precisely what those goals will be.
The United Nations General Assembly is now expected to appoint a group of representatives from 30 countries by September to develop the goals, which are expected to focus on areas such as food, water, and energy.
UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said efforts should now focus on “turning words into action”.
“Rio+20 has shown that there is political ambition for change,” she said. “Now we have to make sure that will is not squandered. We have already started to make headway in the talks held since the text was agreed, such as good progress towards deciding on the themes the SDGs should cover.”
However, Nicholas Stern, chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics, argued the UK should underscore its commitment to the agreement by formally backing the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which requires public and private organisations make green energy commitments by 2030.
The Brazil government, for example, pledged to invest $235bn (£151bn) over 10 years in renewable energy, mainly in hydropower and biofuels.
“The world needs clear time-bound and funded targets and practical action to get sustainable energy to poor people in all continents,” said Stern. “The UK can help show what is possible by working with countries, for example, in Africa, and their utilities and private sector to support action that gets results rapidly.
“The power of the example is the answer to international prevarication and vagueness. It is through actions rather than words that we will be able to create the future we want for ourselves and future generations.”