Can Brazilians Lead From Greed To Green?

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The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UN CSD), fondly known as Rio+20, is being hosted by Brazil. Taking advantage of this, Brazilian corporations and the government itself have been boasting their accomplishments from the last 20 years. Their achievements are indeed noteworthy, with stories of growth, innovation, social equity and environmental conservation.

Successful Sustainability Case
In 1992, a ground-breaking Earth Summit took place in a young Brazilian democracy that was struggling with hyperinflation, corruption and economic stagnation. Since 1994, the country has managed to stabilize its currency by promoting a business friendly environment. According to the World Federation of Exchanges, the market capitalization of domestic companies listed in Brazilian equity markets was US$ 45,416 million in 1992, which was about half of that of South Korea, one third of South Africa and a little more than 10% of that of Germany. During the last 20 years, the market cap of Brazilian firms grew 3033%, surpassing South Africa, South Korea, and even Germany, the latter by a small margin.

The social and environmental gains haven’t lagged behind the economic improvements. Legally protected areas have increased 333% in the last 20 years with a reduction of 77% in deforestation between 2004 and 2010. Brazil is on track to achieve many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015; it already reduced poverty by a whopping 81%, surpassing both the goal set by the United Nations and the one of 75% that the Brazilian government set for the country. In addition, Brazil has also drastically reduced child mortality rates and stabilized the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Brazil resembles an exemplary sustainability case. Compared with the global average share of renewables in the energy matrix (12%), the 45% clean energy matrix exhibited by the locals is envious. To put in perspective, the Vision 2050 report of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) aims at 50% renewable energy matrix.  The Rio+20 host is the nation with the most abundant freshwater resources, holding 14% of the world’s supply.  Despite the massive deforestation in the past 20 years, approximately 27% of Brazil’s total area is still covered with forests. Brazil’s forests comprise 17% of the world’s remaining frontiers, making it third largest block of remaining frontier forest in the world and the first in biodiversity.

The mission
With all these credentials, one can expect from the country that took over the negotiations at Rio+20 to propose bold changes to the text. And yet, even with the Brazilians taking the lead, the negotiations which have been taking place for over two years arrived in Rio with a mere 25% of the paragraphs agreed upon.

The mission:  avoid at all costs of a Copenhagen fiasco scenario, where countries could not agree in a final text.  For starters, ambassador André Lago announced there would be no text changes, a bold move which made many delegations uncomfortable.  Two drafts were issued, one on June 16th and another one with minor changes on June 19th .  The first version, highly criticized by the European Delegation, mirrored the current government policies, highly focused on social and economic issues while ignoring the latent environmental problems.

Furthermore, as Nikolaj Fischer reported, Brazilians seemed to ignore the very process they organized to include civil society in the negotiations, the Dialogues for Sustainable Development. The final draft was approved even before the final voting began on the Dialogues.

“The problem with the current UN model is that we end up with the lowest common denominator,” explained Marina Grossi, who used to negotiate for the government and now is the president of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development. “It is not ideal, but that is what Brazil has to work with.” Ms. Grossi noted that inclusion of certain terminologies in the text, for example natural capital, opens a window for them to be better developed later.

Ambition or lack thereof
The local newspapers highlighted the lack of ambition in the final document and the widespread sense of disappointment. Rio+20 is inevitably compared with the earlier meeting which gave birth to three conventions – the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Convention for Biological Diversity and Agenda 21.  However, as Dr Jeffrey Sachs noted in a speech yesterday, “none of the three treaties that came out of the 1992 Earth Summit have been able to turn the needle in their respective issues: climate change, biodiversity, nor desertification.” What is the purpose of being ambitious then?

Perhaps the hosting nation can do more for sustainability by pushing its case forward. Or maybe, the sustainable development goals that came out of the agreement will be enough to align nations, government and society. One outcome of Rio+20, nonetheless, has been very clear: there are no heroes on the sustainability challenge. Pavan Sukhdev, former Special Adviser and Head of UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, wisely pointed out that in this war, the enemy comes from within.  We must ourselves lead from “greed to green.”

One thought on “Can Brazilians Lead From Greed To Green?

  1. Great article which illustrates the achievements of Brazil and therefore its role in environmental leadership. However, I think there are some remarkable insights your investigation and figures provide that puts Brazil into a more critical perspective. You write “The social and environmental gains haven’t lagged behind the economic improvements.” comparing a 3000% increase in economic terms with environmental improvements i.e of 300%. Don’t you think this is remarkable and you would have needed to write that “environmental gains have lagged far behind, indeed by 10times”?
    Second, I met Charles Lyons, at Riocentro who wrote an article for the NYT about Brazil’s lack of social inclusion because of its aggressive economics. Charles writes
    “Brazil has never wanted the international community to influence its environmental or other policies. Yet as the so-called country of the future continues to make its remarkable entrance onto the world stage — with a growing economy, the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics two years later — it’s whittling away at one of the planet’s most vital resources, the Amazon, while ignoring the continuing drama facing the people who live along the Xingu River.”
    For me this summarizes, at odds with your call for Brazilian leadership, that Brazil does not want to take over environmental leadership if they are that protective of their own policy making, how could they authentically illustrate to other nations to adjust policies?

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