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Understanding Rio+20

Children and young men swim in an irrigation canal in Arghandab Valley in southern Afghanistan Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
Children and young men swim in an irrigation canal in Arghandab Valley in southern Afghanistan
A Nobel laureate, a Swedish environmentalist’s idea, the “doughnut” concept, Scandinavia’s sense of social capital, measuring the quality of life, and valuing the oceans are just some of the things trending in the run-up to the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development due to be held on 20-22 June 2012.

Rio+20 will look at how economies have grown at the expense of natural resources and human capital since the last Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, when the concept of “sustainable development” gained currency.

The idea of growth meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” has not gained much traction since the 1992 conference - largely because countries continued to equate development with economic growth, and sustainable development languished as a fringe environmental concern, says a UN-commissioned study

Twenty years later, “sustainable development remains a generally agreed concept, rather than a day-to-day, on-the-ground, practical reality,” says a report by the UN High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. 

Since 1992, alarm bells on several interconnected factors with a far-reaching impact on growth, resources and the quality of life - accelerated man-made climate change, population growth, increasing numbers of hungry people, rapidly depleting and more expensive fossil fuels, and a decline in food production - have been ringing louder.

“Achieving sustainability requires us to transform the global economy. Tinkering on the margins will not do the job,” said the UN Panel’s report.

Optimists in the scientific and aid community hope Rio+20 will develop from an opportunity to reflect into a collective effort to plot the world’s future growth path.

IRIN aims to make the conference more relevant and accessible by examining some of the ideas circulating ahead of it.

1. Elinor Ostrom: Fast emerging as the moral and academic compass of the conference, Ostrom’s work, which won her the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, shows that growth combined with the sustainable use of natural resources is achievable. Ostrom looked at certain rural communities in Asia, Africa and Europe which have for centuries successfully managed in a sustainable way their common resources - grazing land, water and forests.

''When the Scandinavian countries had to set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they did not consider the markets... but went ahead because they value the well-being of humans and environment...''
The communities developed while preventing problems such as overgrazing, misuse of forests or over-consumption of water. The fact that Ostrom took a multidisciplinary approach (rooted in economics, environment and social capital, successfully combining the three pillars of sustainable development), makes her the expert everyone wants to hear from. She was the chief scientific adviser to the recent Planet Under Pressure conference - an attempt by the scientific community to set the agenda for Rio+20.

2. Planetary Boundaries and Future Earth: The concept of Planetary Boundaries proposed in 2009 by Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and 28 scientists, posits that there are nine critical Earth-system processes and associated thresholds that we need to respect and keep within, in order to protect against the risk of irreversible or even catastrophic environmental change on a continental or global scale.

Doing so would create a safe operating space for humanity. According to the concept’s authors, three of the nine suggested thresholds have already been crossed (climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle). The threshold for the phosphorus cycle (linked, within the concept, to the nitrogen cycle) has also been crossed, according to a scientific paper in 2011. 

The status of the concept grew after being mentioned in the UN Panel report. The Boundaries concept has inspired the “nexus approach” between food, water and energy, which was also noted by the UN panel. “All three [food, water and energy] need to be fully integrated, not treated separately if we are to deal with the global food security crisis,” said the report.

Rockstrom, last week announced the launch in Rio of Future Earth, a 10-year collaborative initiative which will provide the knowledge to help societies meet their sustainable development goals. The International Council for Science, the Belmont Forum (a high-level group of donors who fund climate research), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN University, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are all part of the initiative.

Tom Mitchell, head of climate change at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI), was a bit skeptical about how “10 years of science inquiry” would help. He said countries needed solutions now - embedded in governments and designed to cater for national requirements.

3. The doughnut: In February 2012, Kate Raworth, a senior researcher with Oxfam, pointed out that human growth was glaringly absent from Rockstrom’s concept. She combined social boundaries (such as access to water, health services, food, jobs, energy and education for all) within the planetary boundaries - highlighting the need for an environmentally safe space which needed to be compatible with poverty eradication and rights for all. Between the planetary ceiling and the social foundation lay an area - shaped like a doughnut - which is a “safe and just space for humanity to thrive in”, her paper said. 

Raworth said well-designed policies can promote both poverty eradication and environmental sustainability. She told IRIN the objective was to be able to take care of everyone’s minimum needs, while re-defining the meaning of prosperity, which is equated with material wealth and associated with over-consumption (e.g. food, vehicles). “Governments need to look beyond taking care of people’s material needs and focus on quality of life, qualities of social relationships.”

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The concept has picked up a lot of momentum.

“The concept of Planetary Boundaries is almost pure science,” noted Andrew Scott, researcher with ODI, while the “doughnut” concept was grounded in human reality and the need to agree on a minimum standard of living, whilst guarding against over-consumption. This calls for the need to review UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were not very ambitious to begin with, he said. “Instead of calling for the eradication of poverty it [the MDGs] settled for the halving of poverty by 2015.”

Felix Dodds, eminent author and head of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, also enthused about the “doughnut proposal” in the Planet Under Pressure conference, and suggested the world should strive to turn everyone into a member of the middle-class.

4. Sustainable agriculture: After years of lobbying for an agriculture system which would respect the biosystem and at the same time increase the production of quality food to keep the numbers of malnourished down, scientists feel they are making headway. The proposed draft outcome document of the Rio+20 conference makes note of their concerns. But is that good enough - will that force a change and make sustainable agriculture a part of mainstream policy in countries?

Kenyan scientist Judi Wakhungu, a member of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, says attitudes are changing on the ground: Sustainable agriculture is now being taught in universities in developing countries; donors particularly in Scandinavian countries are more willing to fund such initiatives tailored by developing country governments; and at government levels, sectors such as water, energy and agriculture have begun to talk to each other

Christopher Barrett, who teaches economics and agriculture at Cornell University in the USA, said: “The central issue is high-level political commitment to enacting the necessary policies.” He said the “lofty rhetoric” of the L'Aquila G-8 summit, or earlier summits such as Gleneagles, have “not been matched by significant new investments or policy innovations by the world's major economies”. Progress towards sustainable agriculture was “incremental and dwarfed by the fiscal and employment challenges faced by the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries,” he added, and we should “not hold our breath for any great breakthrough” at Rio+20.

5. Social capital versus market-based approaches: Academically, social capital is a concept which places value on social relations and the role of cooperation to get collective results. The concept is making waves among development experts and the scientific community in the Rio+20 context, particularly as it forces societies to reflect on their value systems.

“It [social capital] is too technical a word,” says Oxfam’s Raworth, but essentially the concept is about valuing quality of life and interpersonal relations more than material wealth. Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre, a member of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, explained: “It is a concept followed by Scandinavian countries - where human well-being is more important than the market value of a particular resource.

Women and children - an agenda at the COP in Durban
Photo: Shayne Robinson/Greenpeace
Multilateral processes to make life on earth sustainable such as the UN talks on climate change have been moving at a snail's pace
"For instance when the Scandinavian countries had to set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they did not consider the markets and industries but went ahead because they value the well-being of humans and environment more than anything else.”

But the reality is that most countries value markets more than human and environmental well-being, say experts, so a value has to be attributed to a natural resources to make people take care of it. As UNEP head Achim Steiner says, “we have to place ecology in economics.”

“We need to create markets around natural resources such as provision of environmental services,” said ODI’s Mitchell. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change did that with trees and carbon, but the process has not got very far.

Both Raworth and Nobre said that to achieve real change, attitudes to wealth needed to be changed, but this could only happen from the bottom up. "Market-based mechanisms to control and exploit the use of our natural resources should be seen as a means to get to a state of well-being and not as the goal," said Nobre.

Richard Norgaard, one of the founders of ecological economics, said at the Planet Under Pressure conference that instead of markets dictating and shaping our economies, “we need to ask what kind of economy we want to live in and then design incentives for the markets.”

6. Measuring wellness: Putting a value on the quantity of natural resources that had to be exploited to achieve certain outcomes could help in terms of sustainability, argued Pablo Muñoz, an economist working on the Inclusive Wealth Report (IWR) project, a joint initiative of UN Univeristy-International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Climate Change (IHDP) and UNEP, aiming to measure, among other forms of wealth, the Natural Capital of countries. The report will be released at Rio+20.

"A country can exhaust all its natural resources while posting positive GDP [Gross Domestic Product] growth," said Muñoz. The world needs "an indicator that estimates the wealth of nations - natural, human and manufactured and ideally even the social and ecological constituents of human well-being," he added.

Some findings of the reports were released at the Planet Under Pressure conference.

Between 1990 and 2008, the wealth of Brazil and India in terms of per capita GDP rose 34 percent and 120 percent respectively. Natural capital, the sum of a country's assets, from forests to fossil fuels and minerals, declined by 46 percent in Brazil and 31percent in India, according the new indicator. Brazil's "Inclusive Wealth" rose by 3 percent and India's rose by 9 percent over that time. But do not expect countries to start using the new indicator any time soon. "It took years for countries to come round to using GDP - so it will be a few years yet," said Muñoz.

7.Valuing the oceans: Attempts to put a value on the exploitation of natural resources are ongoing globally. A new book by the Stockholm Environment Institute calculates the impact of climate change on the economic value of the oceans. It says climate change (in the last 200 years the oceans have absorbed 25-30 percent of the global accumulated emissions of carbon dioxide) alone could reduce the economic value of the oceans by up to US$2 trillion a year by 2100. 


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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