Globe 2002 Showed the Sustainable Side of Business
By Greg Helten
VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, March 18, 2002 (ENS) - A growing number of governments and corporations are evolving to include environmentally and socially friendly components in their policies, plans, and products.
Many of them put their latest achievements on display at Globe 2002, the biannual international conference and trade show on business and the environment held here last week. Over 10,000 business and government leaders from more than 70 countries gathered to focus on three themes: water, energy efficiency and urban environmental management.
But scientists at a side event timed to coincide with Globe 2002 say the evolution towards sustainability is not moving quickly enough to deal with the slow motion ecological implosion the world is experiencing. They are calling for a basic restructuring of global economic accounting before it's too late.
Amid the electric and hydrogen powered vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, and environmental and ethical management systems, there was a general sense of positive accomplishment and profitability among delegates and exhibitors.
Joe Thwaites, president of passive solar heating company Taylor-Munroe Energy Systems, was impressed. "I've seen an evolution over the past decade at the Globe events in business' approach, going from big, end-of-the-pipe technologies to a focus on more renewables and recyclable technologies and wholistic approaches."
Mike Harcourt, who was premier of British Columbia from 1991 to 1996, is now a senior associate with the Sustainable Development Research Institute at the University of British Columbia and runs a consulting company called Sustainable Solutions Inc. Harcourt was pleased with what he saw at Globe 2002 remarking, "Sustainability has finally come of age."
But Bill Rees is skeptical about how successful business will be in making effective change under the current global industrial-economic system. The University of British Columbia (UBC) professor is co-author of "Our Ecological Footprint," a method for tallying the environmental costs and impacts of consumption in terms of land area. Rees presented his ideas at Globe in the early 1990s. Conference organizers did not ask him back this year.
Speaking at a separate conference hosted by the Environmental Studies Association of Canada at UBC over the weekend, Rees explained the problem. "This idea of unlimited growth is a myth that most of us are blind to because we're living within it," he said.
Rees thinks the business community is still blind to the problems inherent in the basis of the present global economic system. He says the system is based on "the myth of unlimited economic growth with an infinite environment to use for resources and waste disposal," where the balance sheets do not include environmental or social costs.
"Humans are now the most significant entity in every ecosystem on the planet, in the forestlands, the grasslands, the oceans," Rees said, "and yet that fact is not incorporated in our economy. In today's boardrooms, the environment is still a subset of the economy, or not included at all. That's ludicrous! We've got to give up on growth and focus on development."
Professor Michael M'Gonigle, eco-research chair of environmental law and policy at the University of Victoria, agreed and suggested turning the concept of sustainable development on its head. "What we should be talking about is managing economic contraction, rather than growth, and developing sustainability," he said.
They both said that the world community must move quickly and decisively to ratify the Kyoto climate protocol before the World Summit of Sustainable Development set for Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26 to September 4. In Johannesburg, heads of state and government and tens of thousands of participants will evaluate the obstacles to progress and the results achieved since the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Toepfer said, "Johannesburg must not be allowed to be a summit of declaration, but a summit of implementation." Business and governments must work to internalize external costs, he said, and we must work step by step to decrease the export of environmental costs to other jurisdictions.
Prescott, a vocal advocate of the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, has been particularly critical of U.S. President George W. Bush for abandoning the Kyoto agreement. Under the Kyoto Protocol 38 industrialized nations have agreed to limit their emissions of six greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Prescott said, "Rio was about the what; Johannesburg must be about how. Nothing less than re-inventing our society will do."
Toepfer and Prescott each said this might be humanity's last chance to make a shift from environmental destruction to a sustainable future.