Germany and the United States at Rio +20

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

In planning last week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio +20, organizers sought to bring together the public, private, and NGO sectors for a constructive dialogue on sustainability and development. The ploy worked for the German delegation, whose liveliness underscored a growing convergence of public and private interests regarding sustainability, but failed to stimulate the U.S. delegation, whose relative inactivity served to highlight the mutual apathy of business and government toward the Rio +20 conference. The dichotomy reveals more than a gap in public policy. The German private sector, which features a strong sustainable energy industry and a growing number of firms responding to increased demand for clean-energy products, far outpaces its U.S. counterpart in its willingness to consider environmental concerns, a divide mirrored in government policy. As a result, the German delegation was able to organize a number of events that brought businesses in touch with NGOs and government officials while the U.S. delegation reserved its energy primarily for the lethargic main room.

To dramatically illustrate the divide, the German delegation hosted a total of twenty-three side events over the course of the two-week conference; the U.S. delegation, in contrast, hosted just one. Strikingly, major German corporations, including Volkswagen and BMW, sent representatives to the German delegation’s events in order to highlight their companies’ efforts to achieve sustainability. To these companies, sustainability has become enshrined in corporate mantra through growth strategies, such as Volkswagen’s “Strategy 2018,” and greater demand for energy-efficient products. As a result, German companies are more likely than their American counterparts to view sustainability as a goal compatible with, or even a step toward, growth and profit, rather than an obstacle thereto. Additionally, German companies are more open toward their government’s intervention in the energy market through the Energiewende. Speaking during a Rio +20 side event, Holger Loesch of the Federation of German Industry (BDI) acknowledged both the innovative potential of the private sector in response to the energy transition and the risk of higher costs in the short term.

Germany’s private sector, as it has already begun integrating sustainability as a core value, is more willing to embrace and participate in sustainability initiatives such as Rio +20. As a result, the German government can better coordinate its actions on sustainability with a private sector whose interests have already begun to converge toward the same values. While it might be too harsh to criticize the United States for neglecting the conference, attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. delegations’ inactivity beside the Germans’ hyperactivity at the conference reflects a divergence in capacity to organize with business and industry regarding sustainability.