‘Without further ado, let the Business Action begin!’

  • 3 May 2005

These were the words of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development 13 (UNCSD 13) Chair, John Ashe, when he opened the Business Action event, at the high-level segment of the annual conference in New York last week.

Set in motion to demonstrate the business community’s commitment to help resolve the global challenges on water and energy, Dr Ashe commended the initiative. “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” he said. “These initiatives show that business is part of the solution.” He also encouraged business to increase its involvement in partnerships.

Through two separate initiatives, BAW (Business Action on Water) and BAE (Business Action on Energy), anchored by ICC, WBCSD and WEC and several additional business associations, business is stepping up its activities on sustainable development. Focusing on water and energy, these Business Action initiatives align with the 2004-2007 objectives set up by the UNCSD.

Formally introducing BAE to the global community, Reuel Khoza, Chairman of BAE and Chairman of Eskom Holdings (South Africa), highlighted the links and synergies between water and energy related issues. Concrete actions and tangible results of what business can and will do were also high on the agenda.

To lend weight to this dialogue, a number of prominent business representatives were present: Reuel Khoza, was joined by Bertrand Collomb, Chairman of Lafarge (France) and Chairman of the WBCSD, and André Caillé, Chairman of Hydro-Quebec (Canada) and Chairman of WEC. Non-business perspectives were contributed by Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs from the US State Department, along with the World Bank’s Jamal Saghir and IUCN’s Achim Steiner.

“The provision of energy underpins all Sustainable Development (SD) efforts, including water,” stated Mr Khoza. Having been closely involved at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, he was happy that the commitments made in Johannesburg in 2002 were not forgotten. There, business was recognized as a key player and contributor, driven by the Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), to achieve collective action.
Drawing on this notion, BAE aims to enhance action, by identifying how and where business can play an active role; and create business solutions with SD objectives, noted Reuel Khoza.

“You have shown that you can make a profit while preserving the environment”, said Paula Dobriansky, addressing the business community. Stating that she is impressed by business contribution, she continued; “Stewardship of natural resources is critical, and dialogue is an important tool for finding solutions.” Underscoring the value of the 3 pillars of SD, Ms Dobriansky also reasoned that business grows when there is a healthy and educated work force; which is a factor that also governments benefit from. Focusing specifically on the energy issue, she predicted that BAE could play an important role to provide access to modern energy services.

Pointing to the striking similarity between water and energy issues and how we manage them, Bertrand Collomb said that while “both water and energy occupy space, energy brings out the passion in people”. Remarking that business will not be successful if more people are not drawn into the market economy, he also emphasized that business should look at SD realistically. “As business needs clear objectives, responsibilities and time frames; dialogue, integrated strategies and business friendly approaches are critical.”

Jamal Saghir, Director of Energy and Water at the World Bank, agreed with Mr Collomb about the links and similarities between energy and water. The Bank’s business models draw heavily on lessons learnt from the past. In the 1980s the Bank concentrated on financing brick and mortar investments. The focus of the 90s turned to private sector involvement. The issue today is how to meet the huge infrastructure service delivery needs to f inance water and energy development. He stressed the Bank’s re-engagement in hydropower and concluded by saying that “the Bank is ready and willing to continue to work in partnership with business to deliver sustainable, clean, affordable water and energy services to its client countries.”

André Caillé, Chair of Hydo-Quebec, and WEC, promoted an open mind with regard to energy solutions: “One must keep all energy-sources open, no source should be idealized, and no source demonized. But to become fully sustainable, new technology must be developed.” This applied particularly to coal, which is abundant in many key countries. Caillé surmised that deployment plans would only be feasible when new coal technology becomes available at an acceptable price. He also cited evidence that energy businesses are placing priority now on balancing environmental and community issues with production and output.

Achim Steiner, Director General of IUCN, concluded the panel by saying that, in his personal opinion, the environmental community now firmly believes that business is essential to solving SD issues. He added a cautionary remark, stating that it is not business who defines the business-case for SD, but the marketplace. He finished his presentation by expressing caution about the temptation to oversimplify privatization challenges and questioned the World Bank’s renewed interest in hydropower investment.

A flurry of questions from the audience at the end of the event, clearly reflected the complexity and the timeliness of the issues raised by the panelists. They also illuminated that while there is still a long way to go, business is becoming avidly sought after and welcomed by civil society as a contributor of working solutions to the water and energy challenges.