After Rio, a new consensus

The text agreed in Brazil may be a compromise, says Ma Jun, but it shows the world is a fairer place than 20 years ago. On the summit sidelines, the campaigner spoke to Xu Nan about global politics, supply chains and China's shifting role.

Ma Jun is founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), an NGO that campaigns for transparency and corporate responsibility in China, with the help of a map of corporate environmental violations. Last week, the Goldman Prize winner spoke at “Cleaning up China’s supply chains”, a Rio+20 side event organised by chinadialogue and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Following the talk, he spoke to Xu Nan about supply chains, the summit and its significance for China.

Xu Nan: China was once at the very bottom of the international supply chains you have spoken about at Rio. But it is steadily working its way up, becoming an upstream market for other economies. What’s the global significance of China’s supply-chain challenges?

Ma Jun: There are two things to note. First, China is clearly expanding – overseas investments and acquisitions are on the rise. But we have already seen some problems emerge due to a failure to fully consider the responsibilities involved. That has already caused financial losses, not to mention harm to the national image.

Second, China is without question still the factory of the world and the bulk of the pollution and environmental damage still happens in China. It is still the base for textile dyeing, electronics, artificial fibres and steel, and that comes at a huge environmental cost. We need to be very clear about the environmental impact of global production and procurement and learn how to manage that better.

One initiative to do that is the Green Choice Alliance, a partnership of 41 Chinese environmental NGOs. That campaign is significant as it goes beyond activist organisations, to work with other parts of society, building cooperation across different interest groups.

China’s influence overseas is increasing, and this is shown in both imports and exports. For example, in Brazil there have been complaints about the ecological impact of China purchasing more and more raw materials.

With production and procurement both taking place globally, environmental management should also be more global – a business should be supervised no matter what corner of the globe it moves to. Information systems are making this possible, and that’s the direction we should be moving in.

XN: Could IPE’s work on supply-chain management within China be applied to – and improve – global supply chains?

MJ: We’ve been talking about that with some people. If you applied that kind of monitoring system on a global scale, you would find that there’s actually little need for it in the developed nations – they already have their own systems. For example, the Toxics Release Inventory in the United States and the European Pollutant Emission Register. The need is in the developing world. If you’re going to build a global mechanism, it’s the developing nations that need the help.

We’re also in touch with some developing-nation NGOs, and some are interested in learning about and setting up this kind of system. Some big brands have also said they would like to see similar systems in other countries to help them manage their procurement and supply chains. But overall, this is at a very early stage.

XN: How do you rate the declaration text the Rio+20 conference has produced?

MJ: Generally, the NGOs here aren’t happy with it. And if you just look at the text, there doesn’t seem to be much progress – much of it is confirming or admitting what’s already happened, rather than moving forward.

But I have a different take.

The outcome of the Rio conference 20 years ago was led by the western developed nations – it reflected their concern for the environment. But 20 years later, things are different. The developing nations are very deeply involved, and some are very big players in sustainable development. So this text is more of a global consensus.

A discussion involving both northern and southern hemispheres is bound to be more difficult, and the text is bound to be the result of compromise – but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad outcome. After all, it includes many good principles for dealing with the problems.

Taking China as an example, 20 years ago it accepted the declaration under western guidance. Now, it only accepts what it can genuinely agree with. And that is a huge step forward.

XN: What about China’s new status and role in the global sustainable development process?

MJ: China is taking on more responsibilities than 20 years ago. In 1992, the conference was led by America and Europe. This time, we see the per-head emissions of countries like China and India rocketing, and therefore they have more responsibilities, and they also have new abilities. These nations will have a bigger role to play in the future.

And so this isn’t just a western nations show. The widespread poverty in the southern hemisphere; the rise of emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil; the related shifts in distribution of environmental problems – all of these changes need to be adapted to. That hasn’t happened yet, so the talks are difficult. And I’m afraid this stage of transition may take some time.

With no agreement between governments, it becomes more important to have civil society and a range of interest groups participating, and that’s going to be crucial for a period into the future. We can’t wait for all the governments to fall into line and negotiate effectively – we need society to take the lead.

Xu Nan is managing editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office. 

Homepage image by UN Photo