In 1992, it was the EU and other developed nations that called the shots. Twenty years on, the geopolitics looks very different
More than 100 world leaders will have descended on Rio this week to sign up to some kind of high-level communique currently being cobbled together by droves of "sherpas" grinding their way through the most God-forsakenly inadequate draft statement I've ever seen.
David Cameron will not be among those leaders – Nick Clegg and Caroline Spelman are flying the UK's increasingly tattered sustainable development flag.
I rather doubt that anyone will be listening to either of them, but they might be struck by the fact that the UK delegation in Rio is made up not just of ministers and officials but of representatives both of civil society (in the shape of Oxfam and WWF) and of big business (Unilever and Aviva).
I see this as a sign of our unsustainable times. Twenty years on from the 1992 Earth Summit, it seems to be almost universally accepted that governments have less scope and less appetite for governing, and that much more influence (if not power) has flowed over to big business and capital markets.
That's not necessarily seen as a good thing by most people in the NGO community. In their eyes, no amount of "corporate responsibility" can possibly compensate for the damage done in the name of profit maximisation.
At the same time, NGOs are deeply concerned that the UN itself has been significantly weakened since 1992. The United Nations Environment Programme has been starved of the funds it needs; the Commission on Sustainable Development (set up after the 1992 Earth Summit) is seen as a useless talkshop; and no amount of UN eco-blather can counter the real power exercised by the World Trade Organisation.
The debate going on now at Rio+20 on "governance for a sustainable world" is therefore a predictably strangulated process – or, rather, a process strangled by powerful nations that have no intention of giving up any more sovereignty.
It's now a widely held view that all UN processes with a direct bearing on sustainability (including the stalled talks on climate change) are not fit for purpose. Gridlock rules. But nobody can think of any better way of doing things.
That's the vacuum into which powerful multinational companies are now entering – somewhat nervously, it has to be said. In Rio on Monday, for instance, there was an announcement of a significant new voluntary agreement on the part of the Consumer Goods Forum to help end tropical deforestation by ensuring that none of the raw materials those companies source will contribute to further forest loss.
It's an agreement brokered by Unilever and other fast-moving consumer goods companies and global retailers. Even the NGOs acknowledge that it could make a big difference.
Indeed, there's a constant buzz of interest in Rio about new partnerships of one kind or another: cross-sector "coalitions of the willing"; big corporates and UN agencies (including the World Health Organisation and Unicef) joining forces; and more and more NGOs "accepting reality" through increasingly creative partnerships with progressive companies.
Toss into that swirling mix an infusion of megabucks from philanthrocapitalists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and you can see why today's global governance map looks so radically different 20 years on.
So does that mean governments have written themselves out of today's "save the Earth" script? By no means. But the governance map is increasingly divided between nations that are still making things happen and those paralysed by economic problems or vacillating leadership.
A once-unified EU exemplifies that trend, with Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries just getting on with it, and countries like the UK, Spain, Portugal and Italy completely losing the plot.
Not that the EU counts for as much as it once did. Far more attention in Rio today is being paid to what China and Brazil are bringing to the party than anything coming from exhausted OECD countries.
Although it's almost impossible to exaggerate the level of environmental damage done by China's growth-at-all-costs strategy over the past 20 years, there's now an inspiring willingness to start doing things differently.
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it was the EU and other developed nations that called the shots. Twenty years on, the "geopolitics" of sustainability looks very different – though it has to be said there's nothing much to show for it as yet. Indeed, the net sum of political leadership on show in Rio this week is still distressingly inadequate.
(By Jonathon Porritt, Guardian.co.uk, 21/06/2012)