Planet Earth: The Road to Rio is Paved With Ambitions

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UN PhotoBy Richard Johnson

GENEVA - 'The future we want' will draw the focus of Rio+20 – the short name for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from June 20 to 22. This world summit is perceived as a "historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all".  

The 'zero draft' for the outcome document of Rio+20, made public on January 10, underlines that 20 years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, where countries adopted Agenda 21, the UN is again bringing together governments, international institutions and major groups to agree on a range of smart measures that can reduce poverty. And this while promoting decent jobs, clean energy and a more sustainable and fair use of resources, says the UN Department of Public Information in a special brochure. 

Agenda 21 was a blueprint to rethink economic growth, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection. It stipulated that industrialised North will be a role model for the developing South. 

What the UN really has up its sleeves in Rio is revealed by a leaked document quoted by the UK Guardian on January 10. The document says: ". . . . World leaders will be called on to sign up for 10 new sustainable development goals for the planet and promise to build green economies. They will also be asked to negotiate a new agreement to protect oceans, approve an annual state of the planet report, set up a major world agency for the environment, and appoint a global 'ombudsperson', or high commissioner, for future generations." 

The zero draft will be reviewed during the initial discussions scheduled for January 25-27. Speaking as the first draft of the UN declaration for Rio+20 was released in New York on January 10, Brice Lalonde, the UN's executive coordinator of the conference and former French environment minister, said the second Earth Summit in June "must be the place where decisions on the future of the planet are made, and not just another talking shop for world leaders".  

He added: "[The draft] is a good start. Most topics are on the table: from efficient international co-operation to sustainable development goals, from a regular review of the state of the planet to an agency for the environment, from universal access to energy to social safety floors. What is missing now is one verb: to decide. Because to stress, urge, call, recognise, underscore, encourage, support or reaffirm is not enough. When heads of state meet, it should be to decide." 

This view is apparently shared by a meeting on Rio+20 at the UN on December 16, 2011. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Sha Zukang, who is also Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, said in his closing remarks:  

"Many reiterated what was stated in the GA (General Assembly) resolution (64/236) calling for Rio+20, that we must have a focused political document. Many indicated their preference for a single document, not multiple documents that would need to be negotiated in parallel tracks. 

"The message on structure I hear is to follow the guidance of the GA resolution, focusing on the objective and two themes. The document should address the deficits that have been identified in implementation, integration and coherence through an action-oriented outcome. Let actions speak louder than words. 

"Most want a concise document, though the precise interpretation of that term remains elusive. One delegation has even put a number on 'concise' – 5 pages. 

"The overall message from all submissions is clear: be brief and to the point. Be understood by the world; avoid a text full of jargon. 

"Many prefer that the vision and declaration of renewed political commitment be accompanied by a set of agreed actions – some called it a framework for action, others a plan, and still others a roadmap. Some want these to be attached in annexes. 

"It was also emphasized that actions agreed must specify actors, timeframes, and means of implementation. The need for a compendium, or registry, of voluntary commitments, to accompany the negotiated outcome, was also raised." 

Role of Science

Rio+20 should set up a scientific cooperation mechanism drawing on capabilities in both North and South, say Gisbert Glaser and Alice Abreu. In a contribution for SciDevNet they regret that twenty years after the 1992 Earth Summit, the sustainable development agenda continues to focus too exclusively on the environment – driven by environment ministries, with woefully insufficient progress overall. 

"And over the past 20 years, development has moved us closer to the risk of exceeding 'planetary boundaries' of our Earth system – from the climate to biodiversity, to land use. Yet while facing these challenges we must further enhance efforts towards bridging the development divide between the North and the South, as well as securing greater social equity and human wellbeing," Glaser and Abreu write. 

It is therefore essential to ensure, they add, that in the future, "those dealing with our economies also commit to sustainable development and the 'greening' of our economic systems." This is why the Rio+20 world summit will focus on the green economy "in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication". 

Glaser and Abreu caution that there will be no green economy without clean technology, innovation and sound science. "The outcome of Rio+20 must therefore include a mechanism to encourage more research and better access to knowledge in all scientific fields." 

Gisbert Glaser is senior advisor at the International Council for Science based in Paris, France. Alice Abreu is emeritus professor of sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

As far as green economy is concerned, the Rio+20 preparatory process has now agreed that there is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' green economy. The elements of a green economy need to be country- or region-specific, with 'greening' of all economic sectors whether agriculture, information technology or the chemical industry, Glaser and Abreu say. 

Making the transition to a green economy will however involve unprecedented efforts to harness science, technology and international cooperation, they write and add: "We need more comprehensive innovation systems based on coordinated policies and sound science that truly integrate the three pillars – environmental, social and economic – of sustainable development." 

Understanding this interconnectedness of natural and socioeconomic systems is crucial for addressing global challenges. And it implies a clear role for new, more integrated interdisciplinary research across the natural and social sciences, the scientists say. 

This means that recommendations by delegates at Rio+20 should aim to include measures to strengthen links between science and policy, and the science base within institutions. They call upon governments to agree to include in the final Rio+20 outcome document a call for establishing a mechanism for coordinated research on sustainable development challenges, with a major focus on North-South and South-South cooperation. 

Ocean

Susan Lieberman, director of International Policy at the Pew Environment Group, said: "We are delighted that although the ocean took a back seat in 1992 at the initial Earth Summit, growing support from countries around the world has now led to its inclusion as one of seven priorities for discussion in Rio. This is a clear recognition that the health of the ocean is vital to sustainable development. 

"This draft of the 'outcome document' includes a number of positive marine proposals, including a move toward negotiating a new, legally binding agreement under the UN for the conservation of biodiversity on the high seas, where currently few rules exist. While these are important issues, we also encourage the addition of text that addresses unsustainable fisheries and illegal fishing. 

"We hope that between now and June, governments will agree to the current proposed language and add strengthening elements that will help halt overfishing, address destructive fishing practices, and lead to better monitoring and enforcement. We call on governments to take strong, meaningful action for the ocean and the vast diversity of life within it at Rio in 2012." 

G-77

Political support to achieve such ambitious goals is indispensable. With this view, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the President of the General Assembly Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser have urged the bloc of developing countries known as the Group of 77 (G-77) and China to ensure that concrete and actionable measures are adopted at Rio. 

"Promoting balanced and stable economic growth and ensuring social equity are essential," said Ban. "Yet the challenges loom large. The debt crisis continues in Europe and elsewhere. Markets are volatile. Budgets are getting squeezed. Unemployment is unacceptably high." 

Ban added: "The United Nations, with the full commitment of its membership, must act resolutely and decisively. Once again, the role of the G-77 is an important part of the global effort to mobilize political will to achieve sustainable development." 

The Group, established in 1964 by 77 States, now includes more than 130 countries, some two thirds of the UN membership, and over 60 per cent of the world’s population. 

The General Assembly president Al-Nasser stressed the need for coordinated action by G-77 and China to ensure successful outcome of Rio+20. 

"I am convinced that under the strong leadership of Algeria (which took over G-77 presidency on January 11) Rio+20 negotiations will lead to a successful outcome and will be an opportunity to give effect to a new vision," Al-Nasser said in a speech delivered on his behalf by his chef de cabinet, Mutlaq al Qahtani. 

“This is a vision based on a concrete programme of action for addressing gaps in means of implementation in the sustainable development agenda, as well as on efforts to address new and emerging challenges," he added. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 14, 2012]

Picture: Rio+20 | Credit: UN

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