Small, grassroots sustainability efforts have proliferated since Rio+20, but a status report signals some challenges and limitations
In the absence of a meaningful global agreement at the Rio+20 Earth summit last summer, expectations collapsed – but didn’t disappear. They shifted from big to small, from global to local.
In response, sustainability leaders recalibrated their attention to the potential for local and regional initiatives to fill this leadership vacuum. After all, while climate change remains an immutably global problem, many of the most immediate environmental and developmental challenges – toxic pollution, education and public health and water and land degradation, to name a few – must be dealt with at a local or regional level.
A year or so on, the question remains: is this bottom-up, smaller-scale approach working? With more than 1,000 sustainability leaders from businesses, NGOs and their allies set to converge in New York next month for a leaders’ summit of the UN’s Global Compact – the world’s largest corporate sustainability membership organisation – it’s a good time to take stock.
It’s premature to come to any sweeping conclusions, to be sure. Too little time has passed to expect even the best executed of the blizzard of plans to have achieved major gains. Yet a recent special report, surveying the portfolio of UN bottoms-up initiatives, makes for decidedly mixed reading.
On one hand, the tally of efforts – totalling 1,382 – offers impressive quantitative evidence of a wide and deep groundswell of initiatives across the globe. On the other hand, the survey shows a worrying fuzziness and lack of progress in key areas.
Though still faint, these signals beg critical questions. Is it possible to distribute a clear sense of direction across thousands of initiatives? Has progress been stymied by the lack an over-arching development goal?
For a sense of the scope and scale of the proliferation of initiatives following Rio+20, flip through the July 2013 special report, Sustainable Development in Action, prepared by the United Nations’ sustainable development division. Synthesizing listings across a handful of databases, the report surveys the accretion of voluntary initiatives that support the goals of Rio+20.
The sheer scale of efforts is encouraging. Out of the 1,382 efforts, more than 700 commitments were announced as part of Rio+20. UN programmes have seeded hundreds more in recent years, including Sustainable Energy for All, United Nations Global Compact, Every Woman Every Child and others.
A closer look
Read a bit more closely, though, and fractures appear. Take, for example, one of the eight high-priority areas examined by the special report, higher education sustainability initiatives (HESI), While 272 organisations in 47 countries had made commitments related to higher-education sustainability as of June, a lack of centralised coordination is impeding progress (emphasis added):
Since HESI was established as an ad hoc initiative by several UN organizations and external stakeholders, this action network relies on a more informal organizational structure, typical of a network of stakeholders rather than a top-bottom organization. Therefore, although the organizational capacity to implement the network goals is rather limited and thus a bit challenging, it can also be seen as strength. (p. 20)
Improved energy efficiency and renewables are widely supported. Yet under the “Sustainable energy for all” category, the special report finds that scaling remains a barrier:
Ensuring adequate support to facilitate action across the many partner countries and thematically driven high impact opportunities, while at the same time collaborating with thousands of stakeholders over the course of the next 17 years, remain a key challenge for the initiative. Without proper follow-up and engagement, many commitment makers may not be fully engaged, which means that they would be left with little direction on how to contribute to the initiative in a tangible way. (p. 26)
To be fair, the problems highlighted in the special report extend far beyond the business-focused mandate of the Global Compact. However, the fuzzy goals and lack of guidance that UN programs face mirror some of the obstacles dogging private sustainability efforts as well.
The sheer number of different sustainability initiatives is a rising source of confusion for individuals, companies, consortia and even entire sectors. Even the most pro-sustainability business leaders can find themselves overwhelmed by well-intentioned, often overlapping agendas, collaborations and standards. The Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings has uncovered more than 1,500 sustainability indicators spanning almost 600 issues.
And small, uncoordinated efforts come with added costs and missed opportunities. In a recent conversation with GSB’s Jo Confino, Mars Inc. CSO Barry Parkin estimated that 125 cocoa sustainability programs exist, each with high startup costs and affecting hundreds – at most, thousands – of farmers. “If we were to align behind programmes, it would be much more efficient,” he said, “and we could really scale up our impacts.”
Signs of success
That said, there are certainly some promising signs, too. Cities of varying sizes, with varying resources, are proving that a common set of interests, abilities and incentives can yield real gains.
Some 4,700 projects have been registered with C40 Cities, which links the mitigation efforts of scores of megacities together with many smaller innovative burgs. The group is on track to cut more than 1bn tonnes of emissions by 2030. In another city-focused program, the carbonn Climate Cities Registry, 302 cities from 42 countries, together responsible for some 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide annually, have filed more than 3,600 commitments, inventories or mitigation plans.
What’s behind these metro-successful stories? Municipal climate efforts can yield self-sustaining benefits, such as boosting energy savings, health and the economy, according to a 2013 survey of 110 cities conducted by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), C40 and the sustainability-engineering firm AECOM.
The gains are especially encouraging given that cities are the battleground for a growing share of the climate challenge. Urban centres account for a bit more than half of the world’s population today, but generate 75% of the globe’s greenhouse-gas emissions – and they’re expected to grow to contain 70% of the population by 2050.
Whether they take the form of rules requiring big buildings to track and publicize their resource use or water-savings standards on plumbing fixtures, successful city-scale efforts share some attributes: they benefit stakeholders, they’re clearly defined – with timelines – and are pushed from the top down.
When sustainability leaders meet in New York next month, they should realize they have a rare opportunity to give helpful structure and greater urgency to business’s role in the post-2015 world. Without clearer marching orders and deeper institutional support, though, the risk is that the post Rio+20 bottom-up approach will simply bottom out.
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