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UN Conferences Are a “Fantastic Agenda for International Sustainability”

Marina Grossi is the President of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development. In this interview she discusses the role of business in Brazil in helping prepare the agenda for two United Nations conferences later this year critical for bringing Earth back to a sustainable balance: the Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, in New York, in September, and the Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in November/December.

David Braun: Both these events are seen as turning points on the road to global sustainability. Why is that?

Marina Grossi: There is a relationship between climate change and critical resources such as water and energy. This year is an amazing opportunity to discuss these in context because these two conferences give us a fantastic agenda for international sustainability.

This is an opportunity to look at the world and the limits of what it provides, the limits from the economic point of view and also from the Earth’s point of view. There is general mobilization towards this. There is a gathering sensitivity and sensibility, which I think is due to the participation of the whole of society in the discussion. This is also a time when it makes good business sense to be sustainable, and together with technology and some steps being taken by business, this is a great moment for these discussions.

This is also a time when many economies are challenged, even in Brazil, where we are struggling with the supply of water and energy. As we think about this, we also think how our situation can be linked with the global agenda for the two big events.

Urgency of the Moment

The urgency of the moment means governments need to plan more, taking into account climate change that’s changing the whole world; and they need to be planning with more than the usual partners concerned with making national planning every four years. We have to plan and act in a more holistic way, matching what we do with the sustainability agenda, thinking how that can develop the country for the better. All that is good momentum. It is good momentum because we remain uncertain about many things and in this context it is easier to be open to new models, new economic opportunities. Above all, we must be more positive about the outcome of this whole process. We have what it takes to move forward but we are not doing it fast enough.

What kind of outcome would you like to see?

If I compare it with the UN Millennium Development Goals, the sustainability goals, then a difference is that we are not talking only about developing countries right now. We are talking about the whole world. We are also talking about a much more inclusive process. For instance, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development is giving us support for this process, within the search for business solutions through its network, and we are joining efforts with academia and civil society. So we have business, academia and civil society from around the world contributing to the platform and process which before was done mostly by governments. That’s something new.

Photograph courtesy of Marina Grossi
Photograph courtesy of Marina Grossi

That in itself is an outcome that changes everything for national and international agencies. We become more capable of delivering measurements, actions and of finding out what’s really working to have some scale. We have a much more robust and complex discussion that includes business civil society and the whole of academia.

By being more inclusive, we address the challenge of the gaps of understanding between government, business, and society. It’s really a big challenge. If you say something like poverty or education, it means something for the government, for instance, but we have to translate it differently if we want to take it to business. We have to include the measure of social impact of business on the environment, and the dependence between business and the community. Since we are more able to measure this, we also now have more capacity to deliver something concrete. I think that’s what society’s waiting for.

Our big challenge is to help the business sector to push the government in to raising their ambitions for this process, to have concrete possibilities that we can achieve zero emissions in the second half of the century, zero emissions for the whole world. It’s complex but it is possible. We have technology and the knowledge to do this. What we need is the determination and urgency to do it.

Let me summarize then: You see a greater alignment of all the different sectors and concerned parties, and with the combination of technology, knowledge and a sense of urgency, there is more of a sense of unity of purpose that you now believe will provide a real chance of coming to an agreement and a framework that can achieve zero emissions by the 2nd half of the century. Would that be a fair analysis of what you are saying?

If I compare this moment with the one of the original millennium goals, we are in a really different era. We are mixing two agendas here: We talk about the sustainable development goals and the relationship we have with our business sector, and we are also talking about climate change.

They are aligned, yes, but I think we could summarize like this: It’s not that we fill those gaps, but that we are more capable of making a framework to fill the gaps. So the discussion we are having right now, for world business, we are delivering green technology, innovation and technology capable of delivering what the world needs.

We are also trying to provide guidance and make an assessment impact of the whole process. Along the same lines, we have the sustainable solutions network, involving also society and the universities. So we are linking this process, and yes, we are doing this under the umbrella of the United Nations. So yes, it is a big challenge, but we have the framework to fill the gaps.

We have representation from business, and all the discussion with business, and we have society’s point of view of the process. And there is also the International Energy Agency and the United Nations observing what’s happening. So it is much more complex and we have a concrete partnership for this. And that has changed everything.

It sounds like you are positive that the process is showing results.

It depends on the perspective. If I say that we need zero emissions by the 2nd half of the century, I could be a big pessimist for that happening. But we must somehow deliver that. In Brazil right now we have a crisis for water and energy, and there is a link with the world’s experience of more intensive similar events.

Sustainability Agenda

Take as an example the sustainability agenda: It’s something that was always considered that the market could not comprehend, because the market does not reflect the true price of water or the price of energy. This is not properly understood by society.

It’s a really ambitious agenda and many movements are trying to do something about it, but I am realistically positive because I can see technology is available to do this, there is knowledge to do it, and some framework to make it happen, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. But I do think we are addressing this better than we did in the past.

We have the tools and the knowledge, but now it depends on our actions and will to use them?

That’s completely right.

How does Brazil align with the UN sustainable development goals going forward? What specifically is the goal of business in helping support and foster these goals after 2015?

Brazil is in a very good place if we think about natural resources. We are very clean in terms of energy. Our energy matrix is clean. We also have a lot of natural assets that the world is looking for. We have water and all that. But at the same time, Brazil has big challenges. We are a mega-diverse country; we have water, but our sanitation is really in a terrible situation. That’s one of the sources of water — treated sanitation. But in Brazil we still don’t have that. That’s why because of the water crisis we are trying to look for new solutions.

We have abundance in Brazil because we have clean energy, we have a lot of water, we have double or triple the photosynthesis of Europe, so our trees capture carbon emissions at a rate much higher than other countries. Those strengths are the turning point for this crisis.

When I say “we” I include society, business and the government. We have a culture of putting everyone in a box, but everyone can contribute. For example, in Brazil we use water more than the world average consumption. It’s terrible how much water is wasted in agriculture. We could use technology to address this kind of waste. So we are living the example of having good information, good technology, and our agriculture is very competitive as a business, compared to other countries, but we can improve a lot in terms of sustainability.

‘What makes me the most optimistic is that sustainability is also good business.’

But what makes me the most optimistic is that sustainability is also good business. Sustainability in agriculture is becoming better over time, not only because the business has been established in the medium and long term, but because prices are rising and we are creating mechanisms to make this a good business.

Of course, I am not saying that making good business from sustainability is easy.

It still needs a lot of hard work and the right price needs to be placed on the table. For instance, we work with 70 big companies in Brazil, and they are legally required to treat the water they consume. But that’s not true for the whole system. Small and medium companies can take water from the rivers, and it’s not even measured because of the culture that we now have. Sustainability has to be consistent for the whole system. But I think that is changing in the right direction.

We must put the proper market price on resources. But there is growing awareness that there needs to be rapid change in this regard. The reality of the scarcity of water was long known in the northeast region, where there are more poor people than there are in the southeast. But now the water crisis is also in the southeast, and that has changed everything, especially in the big cities like Sao Paulo and Rio. So the culture has changed quickly.

Going back to the big international events, what will you be looking for to help address these problems in Brazil?

We have events in Brazil to address the international meetings:

On October 7, CEBDS will be organizing with the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), in Sao Paulo, The Road to Paris and Beyond regional roundtable in which we will be pairing the business and public sectors to see what are the challenges to achieving sustainability. That will form the baseline from both sides, as a first step for a road map with shared vision. We will try to look at the challenges and opportunities and then to develop an action plan, with businesses, banks, and investors, to try to address the gaps. The goal is that public and business sectors sit together and develop an agenda before Paris.

On October 8, we will host our international congress on sustainability, Sustentável 2015, for 800 people. The main issues will be the sustainable development goals, and how we in the business sector are addressing this through our Action 2020, which means concrete business solutions for those challenges. That event will include business and academia, to try to decide on some concrete actions.

Apart from that step here in Brazil for the two international meetings, we are also trying to arrange discussions with the federal government and the big cities, such as Rio. Part of this is a discussion with C40. [C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a network of the world’s megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and big business to create a more structured joint agenda. The group blogs regularly for National Geographic Voices.]

Cities and big companies have the power to make big impacts and transformations on the path to sustainability. The agenda is challenging, but we are determined not to fail, as happened in Copenhagen.

‘The whole world is hoping to avoid having no outcome from the 2015 conference.’

The whole world is hoping to avoid having no outcome from the 2015 conference. With a more inclusive process and a more robust framework, we in Brazil are trying to find national solutions to these challenges through public-private partnerships. But there are gaps still to be filled, not only from the federal government, but also from the states and municipalities. This process has started, but there is still much to be done.

What would be your dream outcome from Paris?

My aspirations are on a lot of different levels. One is to have society more aware of the possibility of change. We have the knowledge and the technology, so we can achieve zero emissions by the 2nd half of the century, but it is up to everyone to change their values.

If you think about cities, mobility, consumption, the way we waste so much, it would be better for us if we shared more. What an impact on quality of life having less cars on the streets would have! But it will only be possible if we have a really good and efficient public transportation system. People need to change their mindset from private to public, leaving their cars at home and taking public transportation. With less cars in the streets, we would not spend so many hours commuting.

‘A more holistic dream would be to give more respect to the limitations of the planet.’

A more holistic dream would be to give more respect to the limitations of the planet. If we could combine this with sustainable business, we will have better employees, better citizens. Some people think I am an optimist, but it is clear to me that humans are not in a good place right now. We should and could be better prepared to address the challenges that face us. And diversity and transparency are going to help us get to sustainability.

We must understand the limitations of our planet and be at peace with that. We must place the proper price on the assets and resources we use. I don’t need to aspire to buy a t-shirt that costs $1, but instead buy a t-shirt that costs more but which is more sustainable; and then I also don’t need to have 30 t-shirts.

We have to change our mindset. People are more open to this than they were before, because they understand the challenges are really big.

My big dream, which I think is possible, is for zero emissions, and if we get that then we will also have a more shared economy, different values and attitudes from business, as well as business making a positive impact. That’s the point.

On a personal note, when I hear you talk about a $1 t-shirt, I think that most people do not realize that a t-shirt like that, probably made in an impoverished country halfway across the world, actually costs a lot, lot more than $1 in terms of damage to the environment and the price we will eventually have to pay to make up for that.

Yes, and if we can give people access to that kind of information that will help. People need this kind of transparency. People need to know that the $1 t-shirt is only possible because the wage is not fair and the cost of the natural resources is not being taken into account. One of the pillars of sustainability is that we must be transparent. We have the technology to do that. If we can have this kind of discussion on social media we can make this dream come true.

Marina Grossi was a participant in the National Geographic/Shell conference Big Energy Question: What Does the Future Hold for Brazil’s Energy Picture?, in Sao Paulo, November 2014.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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