Business buys into earth summit, but at what price
JOHANNESBURG - Lush rainforest trees drip with dew, pristine beaches flank crystal clear seas and the sky is a heavenly blue.
Not a holiday brochure, but an advert for global oil giant Shell.
Like a number of high-profile firms deemed environmental pariahs 10 years ago, Shell has been working hard to clean up its image and, like many from big business, will be showcasing its efforts at this month\'s U.N. \"Earth Summit\" in Johannesburg.
Everything from hydrogen cars to health care programmes and water purification projects will make an appearance at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in an attempt to prove there doesn\'t have to be a choice between principles and profits.
Green and human rights groups say it is not all a public relations exercise and that some firms have started to recognise the need to tackle poverty and environmental degradation.
But they also say that the presence of big businesses - some of whose budgets dwarf the economies of countries attending the meeting - threatens to divert governments from setting targets that force business to do more on sustainable development.
\"It needs to be up to much more than the whim of a chief executive as to whether corporations engage in sustainable development or not,\" said Matt Phillips of Friends of the Earth International. \"Left to themselves business will not respond to the challenges.
NO RULES PLEASE, WE\'RE BUSINESS
Certainly, if the outcome of the last Earth Summit is anything to go by, business has not come up smelling of roses.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report earlier this year on achievements since the meeting in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago and an outlook for the future.
\"Improvements have occurred in areas such as river and air quality in places like North America and Europe,\" it said. \"But generally there has been a steady decline in the environment, especially across large parts of the developing world.\"
UNEP concluded that \"one of the key driving forces had been the growing gap between rich and poor parts of the globe.\"
Western consumerism, fuelled by big business, is unsustainable in its present form, green groups say.
They argue that previous non-binding agreements like the U.N.\'s Global Compact have not worked and stricter rules need to be put in place to regulate the corporate environment.
The compact, a development accord between business and the U.N., is seen as giving the social and environmental policies of big business a stamp of approval without a monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with its principles.
The British charity Christian Aid said this month there was already an indication big business that had hijacked the summit to push its agenda of self-regulation over corporate accountability.
\"The Draft Plan of Implementation - the text which is being negotiated at the summit - uses terms no stronger than \'promote corporate responsibility and accountability and the exchange of best practices in the context of sustainable development\'.
\"Back in January, this read \'launch negotiations for a multi-national agreement on corporate accountability,\'\" it said.
And that\'s the way business wants it.
\"On balance it\'s better to have business driven by the desire to be transparent...than by a compliance mindset,\" said Roland Kupers, Shell\'s Sustainable Development Vice President.
Former Shell chairman Mark Moody-Stuart, now head of the lobby group Business Action for Sustainable Development, says there are already plenty of rules on the environment.
Business and activist groups recognise the environment is not the main problem area. The crunch issue is how business treats people.
BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
Shell knows all about courting international and local ire.
Pilloried for its failure to intervene to prevent the state-ordered execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa - who accused Shell of devastating Ogoniland in the south of the country and leaving its people impoverished - the firm is now holding regular talks with local communities in Nigeria.
But Kupers confessed: \"The most difficult area is that of social responsibility. We don\'t quite know how to do that.\"
Assuring citizens\' rights will be key to the summit\'s success or otherwise, said Friends of the Earth\'s Phillips.
Ultimately, it\'s not so much the firms who will be at the summit that green groups most worry about as those that won\'t.
\"There are a lot of governments...who are influenced by businesses that are not interested in sustainable development,\" said Steve Sawyer, climate policy director for the environmental group Greenpeace.
He pointed to the likes of U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil, which is unlikely to be a major presence at the summit.
Greenpeace says Exxon, viewed as a bigger economic entity than Pakistan, campaigned actively for U.S. President George Bush to ditch the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. When he did, Exxon took out adverts stressing Kyoto was \"flawed\".
\"In my view, Exxon are the Neanderthals - they are going to have to change,\" said Sawyer.
\"Most of the business people who are engaged in the summit are doing it, a few because they believe, more because they see the political writing on the wall that it will be a necessary part of doing business in the next decade and beyond,\" he added.
GOOD BUSINESS SENSE
Businesses that have come on board the sustainable development train say the case for investing in the environment and the community is compelling.
\"Only those companies and industries that provide value to society in a way that is protective of the world\'s resources will be allowed to operate into the 21st century,\" says U.S. chemicals firm DuPont in a mission statement.
The 60 companies of Brazil\'s Business Council on Sustainable Development are planning to invest about $2 billion in the coming eight years on environmental and social projects and expect to reap rewards.
\"We are doing this because we are not stupid, because if we don\'t change, markets won\'t develop and there\'s no such thing as a successful company in a bankrupt market,\" said Felix de Bulhoes, chairman of the Council.
And it\'s not just big business that says it benefits. The International Finance Corporation - the private arm of the World Bank - said in June it had found that even small, localised businesses could gain.
But whether or not businesses small and large will allow global leaders to dictate when and where they contribute to sustainable development is another question.
Friends of the Earth\'s Phillips said: \"The summit is asking the right questions, the danger is we get the wrong answers\".
- Additional reporting by Axel Bugge in Brazil.
Story by Jodie Ginsberg
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
Komentáře k článku. Co si myslí ostatní?