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Can Systems Thinking Actually Solve Sustainability Challenges? Part 2, the Solution

This is the second part in a two-part series on the role of systems thinking in business solutions for sustainable development. Here is part 1. What solution? The Rio+20 Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum, which ended on the 18th of June, provided us with a myriad of sessions that showcased the private sector’s best sustainability solutions. In search for the solution that I had promised after Part 1, The Diagnosis, I attended many of them and also interviewed leaders of corporations, NGOs and the UN – all in hopes of finding the solution.

The North – South Trench in Rio+20

The 3rd preparatory committee meeting for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development closed without agreement. With negotiations hitting a bottleneck, it was left to the Brazilian hosts of the Rio+20 conference to take over the process rush an agreement before final meetings. The text of the draft is diplomatic and polite but a front has hardened between northern and southern countries. It is mainly an economical frontline between the developed and developing world. Mexican standoff: The EU, the US and the G77

Almost every group involved in the negotiations was far from agreement.

Corporate Sustainateens: What’s Next for Corporate Sustainability?

Can Rio+20 promote a rebirth for corporate sustainability? The towering palm trees in Rio’s Botanical Gardens set the stage for yet another event to discuss corporate sustainability in light of Rio+20, the “Sustentável,” organized by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (Brazil BCSD).  Maybe it was the setting, which inspired an elevated discussion on Business and Sustainable Development, that inspired the optimism that businesses can reboot their sustainability efforts.  Or maybe it was the realization that corporate sustainability is entering its teenage years and is starting to define itself and stand alone.  A famous Brazilian psychologist, Içami Tiba, calls it a second birth, when a child turns into an adolescent and strives to become emotionally independent. There are still many questions for corporate sustainability to answer in order for it to mature. During “Sustentável,” the scrawny teen was asked: How do you differentiate companies in terms of sustainability?  How do you measure corporate impact in the local sustainable development?  How do you settle the north-south differences in SD?  How do you increase prices in times of economic recession?  How to reconcile long and short terms? As a teen seeking identity, the first panel questioned the meaning of sustainability.

An hour with Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP


Skepticism ahead of Rio+20 is rife, let’s be honest. And for good reason: We are still a long way from having even a proper definition of Green Economy, a concept which is considered the cornerstone of the conference and of sustainable development at large. Meanwhile, the European financial crisis dominates many a political mind, with environmental conferences finishing, at best, a distant second on the current political radar. Amidst all this doom and gloom, I recently had a rare chance to hear what one of the true leaders of the environmental movement had to say about all this. More specifically, I attended a small-group meeting on the 23rd of April with Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP.

Roll On, Nile, Roll On!

The Nile is the world’s longest river. It is shared between Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (See map below). Except for South Sudan, all of the above countries are members of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) – a cooperative partnership formed in 1999. Six upstream members of the NBI signed a “Cooperative Framework Agreement” that includes Articles addressing issues such as water allocation. One can imagine that such a framework is needed to assist water management efforts between so many nations.

International Water Law: Can We Regulate Water on an International Level?

Water is a unique resource because it is both local and global. Water flows over international and state borders, between conflict areas and through cities and industrial areas. Upstream withdrawals and inputs greatly affect downstream users, who may or may not have legal recourse to challenge inappropriate water activity of upstream users. This phenomenon is particularly tricky in international bodies of water which is why international agencies have often attempted to create a body of international water law, to little effect. Water law and policy, both transboundary and national, was covered in several WWF6 panel sessions. International law is a body of law compiled from international agreements such as conventions and treaties, customary international law, general principles of law, and the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists.  One of the biggest problems that arises with international law is its lack of enforcing power.  In order to create successful laws, an entity needs to be enabled to enforce the laws and punish those who don’t follow them.

Water in India and the “Curse of Democracy”: a Conversation with Asit Biswas

I was lucky enough to sit down over lunch with renowned environmental scientist, professor and political commentator, Asit Biswas. We discussed the state of water management in India, his home country. India is facing a huge water and sanitation shortfall, which will become more severe in the near future as pressures from population growth and climate change surmount.  The federal system is beset by inter-state conflicts over trans-boundary river waters.  Farmers engage in unsustainable mining of groundwater even as aquifers in the western part of the country begin to dry up.  In areas that do experience heavy rainfall, floods cause widespread destruction. Biswas said that India’s democracy, which he argued is the developing world’s most robust despite its tumultuous character, makes managing water nearly impossible.  He proposed a plan to overcome this obstacle. The current state of Indian politics is lamentable, says Biswas, because increasingly fragile multiparty coalitions govern not just the central government, but also many of the states.  Water management entails the coordination of multiple stakeholders.  This is difficult in the Indian political system, which has often been characterized as decidedly adversarial. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible to address water quality and coverage.  Multiparty coalitions are often an assemblage of a diverse set of stakeholder groups;  they are often barely large enough to maintain parliamentary power.  When issues arise that require the delineation of winners and losers, any coalition group that would lose out on the deal will play spoiler and threaten to bring down government unless the terms are changed.  Thus, water issues, which often require some stakeholders to sacrifice, are rarely resolved. There are some highlights of strong governance within India, however.

What Could The World Look Like In 2050

“The only way water reform will be successful,” warned OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría; “is if policy combines sustainable financing, effective governance and coherence. Without major policy changes, we risk high costs to economic growth, human health, and the environment.” This is the takeaway message from the latest OECD synthesis report, Meeting the Water Reform Challenge, that was released at the World Water Forum on Tuesday. Also showcased was the chapter on the outlook for water from the upcoming OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction, where water is a major focus. The chapter on water and water reform was launched in Marseille at the World Water Forum on Tuesday and takes stock of what the next four decades will bring to a world that already has seven billion people on it.