As Disappointment Spreads At Rio+20, Will Public-Private Commitments Fill The Gap?

by Gwynne Taraska and Stephen Lacey

The lack of ambition in the final draft text at the Rio+20 Earth Summit has made many people upset, even outraged. Although it acknowledges (and occasionally even underlines and stresses) that action on sustainable development is urgently needed, it imposes no timelines and provides few details on how to achieve its goals.

But there’s a lot going on at Rio outside of the negotiations, with side events and business meetings resulting in new announcements for public and private actions on addressing climate, energy and water issues.

For example, on Monday, 59 of the world’s largest cities formed a coalition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 248 million tons by 2020


“We’re not arguing with each other about emissions targets,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at an event announcing the initiative.

And yesterday, the world’s largest multi-lateral development banks agreed to put $175 billion toward sustainable transportation in developing countries over the next decade.

Numerous corporations have also made voluntary commitments that include target dates. Some of those — like Microsoft’s pledge to become carbon nuetral — have been re-packaged for the Rio+20 summit. But there are plenty of new announcements as well. Below, we outline some of the key corporate commitments being made in Rio.


The UN Global Compact, together with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and WWF International, has called for corporate commitments to advance the issues of its Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. These include Energy and Climate, Water and Ecosystems, Agriculture and Food, Social Development, Urbanization and Cities, and the Economics and Finance of Sustainable Development.


The forum, held in the lead up to the Rio summit, emphasized recent corporate commitments and private-public collaborations. According to the Executive Summary of the forum, there were approximately “200 commitments to action announced by companies during the Forum, representing both individual and collective actions, in social, economic and environmental areas.” The commitments will be cataloged in the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum Overview, which is set to be released 21 June 2012. Here are some selected pledges that businesses have made through the Global Compact.


Microsoft Corporation has committed to be carbon neutral by the end of FY2013. It plans to reach net zero carbon emissions via offsets and has pledged to partner with government and non-government organizations on renewable energy projects.

Unilever has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions associated with its products in half by 2020.

Nike has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by FY2015. It also has committed to cut water use by increasing efficiency (15% per unit) and to stop discharging hazardous chemicals by 2020.

Bank of America has pledged $50 billion by 2022 for initiatives on energy efficiency, energy access, and renewable energy.

By 2020, ArcelorMittal has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 8% for each ton of steel it produces.

Procter and Gamble’s sustainability goals for 2020 including meeting 30% of the energy needs of its plants with renewable energy and replacing a quarter of its petroleum-based materials with renewable materials.

Energy Poverty

Eskom (South Africa’s public utility) and Duke Energy, both members of the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership, have committed to a project to make sure that 500 million people will have energy access in 54 countries including Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda by 2025. They will share their “knowledge and experience with counterparts in Africa and other developing Countries.”

In contrast, here is Rio+20 draft text’s paragraph 125, which offers neither timelines nor guidelines.

125. We recognize the critical role that energy plays in the development process, as access to sustainable modern energy services contributes to poverty eradication, saves lives, improves health and helps provide basic human needs. We stress that these services are essential to social inclusion and gender equality, and that energy is also a key input to production. We commit to facilitate support for access to these services by 1.4 billion people worldwide who are currently without these services. We recognize that access to these services is critical for achieving sustainable development.

Food and agriculture

DuPont has committed $10 billion in R&D by the end of 2020 to increase food supply, improve agriculture sustainability, and cut waste. It plans to “improve the livelihoods of at least 3 million farmers and their rural communities through target collaborations and investments that strengthen agricultural systems and make food more available, nutritious and culturally appropriate.” They are collaborating with the government of Ethiopia, the Agriculture Transformation Agency, and other partners.


The Rio+20 final draft text reaffirms the commitment to the universal human right to “safe, sufficient and nutritious food” (para. 108) and resolves to “increase sustainable agricultural production and productivity globally” (para. 110) and “take action to enhance agricultural research, extension services, training and education to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability” (para. 114). It does not, however, impose timelines.


Forty-five CEOs of companies represented at the forum made pledges around water sustainability and encouraged the governments attending Rio+20 to join them. The Coca Cola Company, for example, pledges to recycle the water in its manufacturing plants by 2020 and to “reduce its water-use ratio to improve water efficiency by 20%” by 2015.

These are important developments. But we should be cautious as well. Some of these pledges are issued primarily for marketing, and it will be important to hold these corporations accountable to ensure they follow through with their commitments. (In order to monitor both public and private pledges, the Natural Resources Defense Council has rolled out its “Cloud of Commitments” website, which will allow interested parties to better track the money.)

Clearly, many things are happening at Rio. While negotiators may not be developing an ambitious text that matches the scope of our environmental problems, real work is still happening on the ground level — and many of these commitments bear that out.

Gwynne Taraska is a Research Associate at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. Stephen Lacey is Deputy Editor of Climate Progress.