The World Summit on
Sustainable Development in September 2002 was an anti-climactic
conclusion to three decades of global environmental activism. Delegates
agreed few new targets for governmental action, save a welcome pledge to
halve the number of people without access to sanitation and safe drinking
water by the year 2015.
What did emerge from Johannesburg was a new debate. Many governments
and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) argued that voluntary
partnerships between business, governments, and NGOs were the best way to
make concrete progress on sustainable development
Ten years earlier the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro generated a
long list of official commitments and optimism that governments could
protect the environment and reduce poverty. Johannesburg symbolised the
extent to which Globalisation has scrambled the interests and capabilities
of governments, corporations, and activists. Now former antagonists are
drawn to work together in ways that are uncomfortable, controversial, and
yet often highly effective. It is an era of strange bedfellows.
The New Global Context for Environmental Action
Thirty years of effort to restore and protect the environment has left
a mixed record. While many local environments are on the mend key global
trends are worsening
The Kyoto Protocol, which
will likely enter into force after 2002, will not solve the problem of
global warming. Leaving aside the intransigence of the U.S. (the largest
single source of greenhouse gases) the Protocol does not commit the
developing countries (collectively the world's largest source of future
greenhouse gasses) to reduce emissions.
There are good reasons for omitting developing countries from the Kyoto
mandate. The developed nations are responsible for the current high levels
of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and they have greater financial and
technological capabilities to reduce emissions. Ultimately, however, the
solution to climate change and other global environmental problems will
depend on the active participation of the developing world.
Globalisation has proved a two-edged sword for business and the
environment. As the political will and capabilities of governments to
address environmental issues has waned, private capital has become the
main source of foreign investment in many developing countries. The
multinational companies whose investments have helped to create economic
gains and environmental stresses in the developing world now face pressure
to improve their environmental performance. Similarly in the United
States, a trickle of voluntary initiatives has become a flood.
The contrast between Johannesburg and Rio illustrates the extent to
which the institutional context for addressing environmental problems has
changed. Broadly speaking, governments came to Johannesburg with less
interest and fewer resources than they brought to Rio. Business, on the
other hand came ready to do business and enter into partnerships with
environmental organisations and governments.
Some NGOs want government to reassume a strong hand in regulating the
growing influence of global corporations. Others are trying to surf the
new waves; aligning with the corporations who seem more motivated than
governments to take action on environmental issues.
In one sense, partnerships between corporations and environmental
organisations are not new. Companies have provided charitable grants for
the programs of environmental organisations for decades. The controversy
in Johannesburg surrounded a new type of partnership in which the common
interest of the company and the NGO has grown beyond philanthropy. Now
both organisations seek to solve an environmental problem associated with
the company's core business without waiting for a government mandate.
These partnerships are a significant departure from the ways in which NGOs
and businesses have typically behaved.
The Pioneers: Environmental Defense and McDonald's
Two of the first organisations to break this tradition were
Environmental Defense (formerly known as the Environmental Defense Fund or
EDF) and McDonald's, who launched a landmark partnership in 1990 to reduce
waste in McDonald's restaurants and supply chain. This reduced more
than 150,000 tons of packaging, recycled more than two million tons of
corrugated cardboard, and purchased more than $4 billion worth of products
made from recycled
materials. It has been followed by similar
initiatives to reduce water and energy consumption and a new
partnership with the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business at
Conservation International to promote conservation and sustainable
agricultural practices among suppliers of commodities, such as fish, beef,
potatoes, and oils.
While difficult to prove, it is likely that the
McDonald's-Environmental Defense initiative spurred other companies and
NGOs to partner on voluntary environmental action. EDF in 1994 launched
the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, which has undertaken similar waste-reduction
initiatives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched
more than 30 voluntary programs to encourage the private sector to act
above and beyond regulatory
requirements (pdf 139Kb). EPA's Project XL grants companies the
flexibility to test alternative approaches that achieve better
environmental results more efficiently than existing regulatory
requirements. Other EPA
voluntary programs promote pollution prevention, energy efficiency,
water efficiency, waste minimisation, mass transit, watershed
conservation, sustainable agriculture, and more.
This is an edited version of a paper given to the New America Foundation on 20 November 2002.
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