Leaf through the pages of this edition of Ethical Performance and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is our sustainable future issue. Since the date was set for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, it has served as a marker for both campaigners keen to see movement on climate change mitigation and businesses looking for clear regulatory signals which might point to a framework within which they can plan. And the sheer volume of initiatives and other stories on how business is working to improve its sustainability have been building up to a crescendo as the date approached.
While the UK’s announcement on mandatory carbon reporting is certainly welcome – timed, presumably, for maximum effect – Rio+20 has in many other respects failed to deliver the over-arching vision of exactly what our sustainable future is going to consist of. And, indeed, how we’re going to get there.
There is a sense that governments are the obstacles, due largely to their lack of vision, mired as they are in short-term political fights, as well as – in the US, at least – the paralysing effect of a forthcoming presidential election. Then, there is also the inevitable conflict between the developed and developing world over where the costs of climate change mitigation will lie, as interestingly expressed by Bolivian president Evo Morales, who described the sustainability future agenda that was the focus of Rio+20 as the “new colonialism”.
Though the political system would seem the natural place for debate and leadership on the really big issues – and they don’t come any bigger than the future of the planet – our leaders have shown time and again that they cannot cut themselves free of electoral realities or quell the real fear of compromising their competitiveness by making a climate-related leap of faith.
So, as ever, it’s increasingly left to business to fill the void, but there are at least positive signs of momentum building on that front. Work by the insurance industry with the UN to develop and commit to the new Principles for Sustainable Insurance (see page 5) is a significant step, both because of the size of the sector, and because of its strategic role in the investment community.
Meanwhile, the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment has been boosted by the support of asset and risk management provider, Conning.
The trend towards industry-wide collaboration to set standards and benchmarks, such as the Hotel Carbon Initiative, is also a very positive sign and demonstrates that businesses are increasingly open to ‘competitive collaboration’. And, of course, though the mandatory carbon reporting requirement announced at Rio is a UK initiative, this will have – assuming the government follows through on its promise – a notable demonstration effect.
All of these are small steps in the great scheme of things. But, for the moment, it’s the best we have.
• Originally published in Ethical Performance in July 2012