This fall, we’re seeing a replay of some issues that have been around for a while: The world’s economy remains on the precipice of disaster, not quite falling into the abyss, but not exactly escaping low growth, high debt, and insufficient employment.
All this leaves sustainability at the margins of the public debate. In the aftermath of Rio+20, the idea that governments were largely ignoring the promise of a green recovery has been reinforced by Europe’s focus on saving the euro, Brazil’s failure to enact a Forest Code with real strength, and an American presidential campaign utterly devoid of attention to climate change. (Special points go to Mitt Romney for mocking President Obama’s claims in 2008 that he would stop the rise of the oceans. If anything, both candidates for the U.S. presidency should be chastised for largely ignoring climate change, even as devastating droughts and storms continue to punish the U.S. economy and global food supplies and prices.)
In this desultory environment, the need for leadership is clear. Indeed, the principles of “redefined leadership” that BSR outlined in 2011 are even more urgent today. We presented them as the basis for business leadership, but with our political leaders failing to embrace sustainable development, it is timely to consider how they could use these principles to put the world’s economy on a more sustainable path.
Herewith, Redefining Leadership 2.0: The Political Version.
• Set ambitious targets: Political leaders have punted on big goals. This can be dealt with in part by the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals and Natural Capital Declaration that emerged from Rio+20. These efforts create a vision of the world we wish to build, and serve as a global rallying point for innovation and collaboration.
• Learn from the margins: At Rio+20, the unofficial participants—community groups, business leaders, and international NGOs—seemed to understand the nature of the challenge far better than official state delegates. This shows how badly our global governance models need to integrate civil society and the private sector into policymaking structures. Nation states’ monopoly over decision-making won’t—and shouldn’t—last if they cannot find ways to bring these other, more relevant actors into the process.
• Invest in infrastructure of all kinds: With major economies drifting, the case for stimulus remains strong. What’s more, investments now can lead to renewed economic activity in the short run and more efficiency in the long run, through smart cities and buildings, massive uptake of residential solar, and the “cleanweb” enabling distributed energy systems. Austerity remains a powerful symbol of fiscal prudence, but it is actually the opposite; the case for forward-thinking investment is clear.
• Take a long-term view: Short-term thinking is still a big problem. Public equity markets operate the same way they did before the financial crisis.
Business leaders have begun to call for changes, as reflected in part by an increased interest in integrated reporting. Business has a powerful voice when it comes to market rules, and the interest of business is in markets that support longer-term thinking. It’s time for political leaders to stiffen their spines and reorient market rules to enable investments in the stable growth and low-carbon development we need to deliver real global prosperity.
Left to their own devices, political leaders in Brussels, Beijing, and Brasilia are failing to build 21st century solutions. The sustainability community—companies, NGOs, and even some consumers—have much to teach them. Let us push for redefined leadership. Without that, we will not have a revitalized economy.