Speaking of Rio+20: A Conversation with UN Assistant Secretary General Liz Thompson

© Ann Goodman 2012

Imagine: You’ve been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. You’ve been elected to Parliament. You’ve run the environment Ministry for a whole country. You’ve been a Cabinet member. You own a successful business, including the building from which it operates. You have an impeccable financial record.

Then imagine: You go to ask for a loan for a larger building to support your expanding energy and environmental consulting practice, and the bank clerk asks you to bring in your husband — to sign the loan papers.

“No mature man with a successful business and a track record with the bank walks in and hears the desk officer say ‘you must bring your wife in to sign, or you can’t get a loan,'” explains H. Elizabeth (Liz) Thompson, now U.N. Assistant Secretary General and co-Executive Coordinator for the June Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

Her personal experience at the bank in her native Barbados, where she was the first graduate of the University of the West Indies to be appointed to the Cabinet and served as an elected Parliamentarian for 14 years, 12 of them as Minister of Environment, is among the many graphic indignities women face that have made Thompson an ardent supporter of women’s development, access to jobs and investment in the ‘green economy’ that is a central theme and objective of the upcoming international meetings in Rio.

Recruited by the U.N. in 2010, Ms. Thompson’s role “is to support the objectives and themes of the conference, build consensus around the objectives and themes, work with stakeholders at the political level, as well as non-state actors internationally, including the NGO community, business leaders and multilateral development world,” she explains.

As if that weren’t enough, she and a miniscule staff also support the negotiations and the U.N. Millennium goals and process, providing strategic messaging and producing papers and articles for U.N. agencies like U.N.EP and U.N.CTAD, as the Summit approaches.

A big role for big business

Thompson’s vision for the Rio summit outcomes includes a bigger role for business in sustainability — and a better role for women.

“We need the business community to embrace the principles of sustainable development as part of their operating ethic, so that they’re more conscious of supply chain and procurement issues and policies such as employing and promoting women fairly,” she says. “Companies need to be sensitive to their own practices toward women and their own environmental practices.”

But hasn’t business advanced in that direction since the U.N.’s first Rio conference 20 years ago? “It’s a change that still needs to take place, a conversation that must be widened,” Thompson says. “Not all businesses have done it, just as all governments haven’t done so.”

Expanding government’s part at Rio+20

Which gets to another of Thompson’s pet peeves: “Sustainability issues are mostly handled by environment ministers, who aren’t the most influential in making critical policy and budget decisions.” Just as many in the business community are urging CFOs and others in the C-suite to join the sustainability conversation, Thompson says: “We also need finance ministers,” among others.

Thompson’s most ambitious hope for the Summit: “To move the conversation beyond the converts and really have a global dialogue among all people on sustainable consumption, production and governance — and how people want to see their lives changed. That dialogue has to be transformative; an intergovernmental agreement alone will go a long way, but much more has to happen, including wider input and action from business.”

Women’s role in the green economy

One of the overall themes of Rio +20 is ‘green economy, jobs and investment.’ And this is where Thompson’s insights on women are particularly astute.

On the one hand, women can offer tremendous leadership, as the call for a sustainable society broadens.

On the other hand, while there may have been progress in some quarters, there’s ample evidence that women still haven’t attained full equity with men in terms of income, employment and status, Thompson notes.

At the same time, women are more likely to suffer from adverse effects of climate change.

Filling the technical gap

Finally, and perhaps most notably in the context of the upcoming Summit, many jobs that may lead to a green economy are those in technical fields, where, traditionally, women haven’t excelled in great numbers, Thompson points out.

“Research is showing … that while the green economy will generate new jobs, many of these will be technical jobs in fields which are traditionally dominated by men, particularly in areas such as transport, construction and energy which are being and most likely will be filled by men,” Thompson says.

“There is therefore a risk that in the transition from the brown to green economy women will be adversely affected, and the gender gap will widen, more women will become unemployed or find it more difficult to access jobs.” she adds.

Leveling the field

That’s where supportive development, educational, vocational and other pro-active programs and policies, including better access to health care, must play a significant role — and where Rio+20 offers both the opportunity and responsibility to include language and policy to help promote such goals, Thompson believes.

“How [do] we protect women as we roll out the green economy?” she asks.

“First, in creating the enabling environment for business to make the transition to the green economy, governments must consider what policy, legal, fiscal, regulatory, tax, concessions, and other factors will serve as an incentive for businesses to invest in the green economy — to move transport systems, retrofit buildings, invent or use technologies which are more efficient and less wasteful of natural resources,” Thompson says.

She adds: “When countries ask what are the policy matrices to bring about a green economy, I believe they’ll find that they’ll have to look at the operationalization of green economics, specific strategies to help women make the transition because of women’s general lack of technical expertise.

Women’s strengths

Even as women may risk job losses in the move to a green economy, a significant body of research shows that women in fact care more about environmental and social welfare, Thompson notes.

As for the Rio goals, including a global green economy, she elaborates: “Women have a significant role around sustainable consumption and production, especially because of the importance of their choices in the family.

“Women have innate leadership skills and sound judgment to make them effective leaders. They’re key partners in the green economic transition. They have a way of seeing things comprehensively, bringing a mentoring approach to management and treatment of issues, including social considerations and implications. All this is important in a green economy and management. This understanding of the three pillars is exactly what sustainability is about, and women naturally gravitate to that approach. They are also by nature solution seekers.”

How she got there

How did Thompson herself begin seeking solutions to environmental problems? “It happened without any input from me. After I won my seat [in Parliament] I was offered cabinet position in health in 1994, and early next year, environment was added. I learned by doing. I’m totally and completely passionate about it and deeply committed to it. The environment is one of the really important cross-cutting issues.”

And how did she become an advocate for women’s empowerment? “It’s impossible to grow up as a woman in world and not see the glass ceiling, experience not being taken as seriously as male colleagues, or seeing friends going to companies and not earning the same thing or getting desired promotions.”

How We Can Get There

How can we get closer to a green economy via Rio+20? “The global green economy … is expected to protect our natural resource base, generate growth and invest in human and social capital. There is no doubt that our rate of natural resource consumption is at unprecedented global levels, that we are experiencing equally unprecedented prices for natural resources which are becoming increasingly difficult to access. This combination of factors is compromising quality of life, the capacity of governments, companies and citizens to meet the costs of natural resource supplies and is impacting economies everywhere,” Thompson says.

“Some kind of planning and preparation for continuing high petroleum prices and the post petroleum economy must take place…we have to find the technologies and policies which will act as drivers for low-carbon growth…and increasing our use of materials which are infinite as in the case of renewable energy sources, while reducing the level of consumption, waste and squander as it relates to natural resources generally.

“The global green economy means practicing sustainability, taking such factors into account; it means living in the now but planning and preparing to secure the future”


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