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UN Reaps Pledges Worth Billions for Sustainability Drive

June 22, 2012

UN Reaps Pledges Worth Billions for Sustainability Drive in Rio

Indigenous groups protest in defense of the environmental and social causes at the Rio +20 Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, on June 21, 2012. Photographer: Rafael Sanchez Fabres/LatinContent/Getty Images

United Nations officials will detail today pledges worth billions of dollars to curb the use of fossil fuels, conserve water and encourage wider use of renewable energy, part of a global effort to promote economic growth that doesn’t strain the planet’s resources.

The pledges include at least $2 billion from the U.S. and projects from PepsiCo Inc. (PEP:US) and billionaire Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room group. The UN counts at least 517 commitments from companies, organizations and nations, and will put a value on them at a briefing today in Rio de Janeiro, according to Pragati Pascale, a spokeswoman for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

With UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and world leaders including French President Francois Hollande disappointed that the 49-page official, non-binding agreement produced at the Rio+20 summit doesn’t do more to protect the Earth, the voluntary pledges indicate that individual commitments may go further toward achieving sustainable development.

“I don’t see business people demanding a stronger UN text,” Bank of America (BAC:US) Corp. Chairman Chad Holliday said in an interview in Rio. “We won’t save the world alone, but we’ll get half of it done, and we’ll get some momentum.”

Rio’s Legacy

Ban expects the voluntary pledges to be the legacy of the Rio+20 meeting, which ends today. The event marks two decades since the first Earth Summit in Rio led to treaties on global warming, deserts and biodiversity.

This year’s gathering produced a non-binding document with more than 180 nations agreeing to keep talking about still- undefined “sustainable development goals.” Environmental groups including Greenpeace International said the agreement is weak and will have little tangible impact.

“We need all the commitments we can get and have all investments aligned in the same direction, both private and public,” European Union Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in an interview. “We should not lose sight of the size and the dimension of the transformation we are facing.”

Just what the UN will include in its figures isn’t clear. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based researcher following a smaller group of commitments, counts 155 separate commitments worth at least $263 million on its website. The group counts promises as diverse as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US)’s plan to make itself “carbon neutral” to an expansion of the Dutch Cycling Agency.

‘Real Action’

“A document doesn’t save the planet; what saves the planet is real action,” said Jake Schmidt, NRDC’s director of climate policy, a research group tracking the commitments. “Rio can’t be about the text. It’s got to be about the commitments and the rallying cry that’s coming from the public.”

Bank of America’s Holliday said he supports Ghana, which has a program to boost renewable energy use by 2020, and the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All program. That program has attracted $50 billion in commitments from businesses including Norway’s state oil company Statoil ASA (STL), to pursue objectives such as curtailing natural gas flaring in Africa.

“The role of companies is all the more important for the world because so little has come out of governments,” U.K. billionaire Richard Branson, the chairman and founder of Virgin Group Ltd., said in an interview in Rio. “Companies have really got to step in and do the best they can without the proper ground rules set by governments.”

U.S. Contribution

Among the voluntary efforts unveiled this week in Rio is a new financing mechanism to spur clean energy in Africa from the U.S. government and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to provide details today at a press conference.

Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla said that monitoring the growth of individual pledges is more important than the summit’s official agreement, and that countries that are willing to do more should push forward in smaller alliances on issues like reducing deforestation.

“It would be very serious if we stopped the pace of progress just because others aren’t doing things well,” Chinchilla said in an interview. “We have a world public who will end up defining the pace at which we advance.”

Bolivian President Evo Morales joined environmental groups condemning the involvement of business, saying the UN’s link with corporations has diluted its traditional mandate of fighting for the poor.

‘Hijacked’ Positions

“Governmental positions have been hijacked by corporate interests linked to polluting industries,” said Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of Friends of the Earth International.

The UN decided years ago it had to involve business to deliver on its goals, said Kandeh Yumkella, the group’s official in charge of the Sustainable Energy for All program.

“Twenty years ago, we made commitments, but there was no mechanism to take any action,” said Yumkella, the UN Industrial Development Organization chief. “We didn’t develop a charity model. These are real projects.”

More than 100 developing nations are involved in the commitments. Mohamed Waheed, president of the Maldives, pledged in Rio to convert his entire nation, a string of islands in the Indian Ocean, into a protected area to conserve coral reefs, fish, turtles and sharks.

“The Maldives will become a marine reserve country,” Waheed said in an interview. “We have created our first biosphere reserve in one atoll and we will continue the program throughout the country.”

Other Pledges

Other pledges announced by countries, companies and organizations include:

- The U.K. set aside 150 million pounds ($234 million) to help 6 million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa adapt farming practices to a changing climate. The government also said all companies listed on the main market of the London Stock Exchange (LSE) will be required to detail greenhouse gas emissions in their annual reports next year.

- More than 50 countries and 86 corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT:US) and Unilever NV (UNA), signed a declaration supporting natural capital accounting, a measure of wealth that goes beyond GDP by including the value of natural assets such as soils, watersheds and fisheries.

- Eight multilateral development banks said they will invest more than $175 billion over the next decade to promote more sustainable public transportation and cycling.

- The World Bank (NKWGRAU) said it will double the leveraging of its energy lending to $16 billion a year, focusing on initiatives such as renewable energy and clean cookstoves.

To contact the reporters on this story: Reed Landberg in Rio de Janeiro at landberg@bloomberg.net; Alex Morales in Rio de Janeiro at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net


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