Tipping Points, Black Swans and Perfect Storms: Kickstarting Sustainable Finance on the Road to Rio+20

"Combining private sector financial flows and smart public policy will be a key to a low carbon, resource efficient 21st century Green Economy." -- Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. Dubbed "Rio+20" to mark the 20th anniversary of the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the conference is critical to the future health of the world's environment and its population, as it will set the global sustainability agenda for the next decade.

One of the key meetings in the run up to Rio+20 is the 13th UNEP FI Global Roundtable, a major gathering of former heads of state, academics, policymakers and members of the banking, insurance and investment communities to be held October 19-20 in Washington, DC. The roundtable will focus on the financial sector's role in international sustainable development under the theme of "The Tipping Point: Sustained stability in the next economy."


Considering that half of the human population lives on less that USD 2.50 a day, 1 of every 2 children are living in poverty, over 200 million people worldwide are jobless and 1.5 billion jobs are considered vulnerable, job creation and poverty elimination must be dealt with concurrently. But there are a host of other pressing issues that are making life on the planet much more difficult.

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and current Member of Parliament who has issued stringent warnings about the catastrophes that global waming could cause if society failed to act, will be speaking at the roundtable. Brown has called for a "new kind of thinking and action" to address the intertwined "challenges of a global economy when climate change, resource scarcity, commodity price volatility and income inequality, amongst other ongoing concerns, will set the future context for our finance sector and global capital

Other confirmed speakers include Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP and Under Secretary General of the UN; Paul Abberley, Chief Executive, Aviva Investors London; James Balsillie, co-CEO, Research in Motion (RIM) and member of UN High level panel on Sustainability; Aron Cramer, President and CEO, Business for Social Responsibility; Roberto Dumas Damas, Head of Environmental and Social Risk, Banco Itau BBA; Alexandra Liftman, Global Environmental Executive, Bank of America; Weihua Ma, President, China Merchants Bank; Jigar Shah, CEO, Carbon War Room; and Mark Tercek, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Nature Conservancy.


Also speaking will be Nassim Taleb, the author of the best-selling book The Black Swan, the title of which refers to a "highly improbably consequential event," such as 9/11 or even of the success of Google. Taleb's participation at the roundtable will be key, as one of his main arguments is that we give far too much weight to the past, believing too much in the old adage that history will repeat itself.

It's hard enough to manage the global financial system with the ongoing and unpredictable presence of corruption and fraud -- elements that were the basis of such Black Swans as the Enron and Madoff scandals. But pushing the sustainability of financial markets with predatory lending, deregulation and complicated financial vehicles like credit derivatives has shown that nothing happens in a vaccum.

"Misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance," said Taleb, "like a child playing with a chemistry kit." With the world population expected to surpass 9.3 billion by the year 2050, the potential for aggressive ignorance to multiply exponentially is huge.

In 2009, John Beddington, England’s chief scientific advisor, warned that current trends are lining up to create a perfect storm. "It is predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce around 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change," he said. "This threatens to create a 'perfect storm' of global events...There's not going to be a complete collapse, but things will start getting really worrying if we don't tackle these problems."



Ibid., 1.

image: a plant nestling amongst the roots of a 2,000 year old Totara tree, Montgomery Park, Duvauchelle, Canterbury, New Zealand (credit: Nathanael Boehm, Flickr Creative Commons)