Tag Archives: Rio + 20

Planetary guardrails for sustainable development

The United Nations often gets accused of talk and no action. Perhaps, however, it is necessary to do a lot of talking before action, in order to clarify both purpose and means and to achieve genuine consensus. The UN does have a consensus model of decision-making, where one vote can be a veto. This being so, lots of talk is inescapable.

Two years ago the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) was highly critical of the leaderless talkfest on development issues. Now two years later, as decisions are soon to be made after tsunami of talking, they have entered the debate with I think an important contribution about the need for planetary guardrails for development.

Civil society groups were scathing.

George Monbiot describes it as 283 paragraphs of fluff.

That’s how I began my post on Rio+20, written in October 2012, when Larvatus Prodeo was in hiatus and Climate Plus did not yet exist, so it has never been on the front page and no doubt has had a very small audience. I commend it to you.

Highly critical too was the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), a body set up in in 1992 to advise the German Government prior to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and remains the official advisory body on climate change. The WBGU has a brief which goes beyond climate change and indeed the environment to change generally.


However, climate change is always front of mind, because one Hans Joachim (John) Schellnhuber co-chairs the WBGU and is also Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Schellnhuber perhaps is to European climate science what James Hansen is or was to American climate science, but not held at arms length by government actors. He has personal and official access to the president of the European Union and the German chancellor Angela Merkel. No doubt it helps that Merkel has a background as a research scientist in a similar discipline to Schellnhuber’s PhD, and was minister for the environment in Helmut Kohl’s government.

WBGU saw the verbiage at Rio+20 as exemplifying

an international crisis of leadership and confidence, a “G-Zero World” in which no leading power effectively is taking the initiative and no coalitions capable of taking action are emerging.

Many think this may have now changed with recent decisions made by the US and China and co-operation between the two.

Rio+20 made one significant ‘decision’. The Millennium Development Goals process comes to a natural end in 2015. Obviously it should be replaced by something to continue the work, so Rio+20 decided that there should be a new process to establish a new set of ‘sustainable development goals’ (SDGs).

The cynic in me suggests that this was the outcome planned by bureaucrats before the conference started and the purpose of the pointless verbiage was to ensure that the conference did not stray into inconvenient areas. But as I said in 2012:

The WBGU press release commented favourably on the supporting program, which “showed that the transformation towards sustainability is already in full swing”. The conference site registered over 500 on-site side events over 10 days. In Rio+20 in numbers they suggest there were thousands if you count those off-site as well. In a sense the official summit was a side-show.

At the conference there would have been plenty of bookable rooms like this:


On the official level, having been given a head of power, the UN machine then swung into action, meaning more talk, in spades. It generated a high level panel of eminent persons (you can bet Schellnhuber was there), an Open Working Group withy the main carriage of ‘doing something’ and a UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda to undertake thematic and regional consultations. There is also a Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), led by Jeffrey Sachs, economist and advisor to Ban Ki-moon on development issues.

More talk too on the unofficial side. In Melbourne on 20-21 June there will be a C20 Summit of civil society leaders to make recommendations to the November G20 meeting, if Abbott extends the agenda to such trivia.

As discussed here the problem with SDGs is that if you try to do everything then effort becomes dissipated. If you narrow the focus too much then important issues may be missed. The Millennium Development Goals were thought to have struck a good balance. They covered the eight areas of poverty alleviation, education, gender equality and empowerment of women, child and maternal health, environmental sustainability, reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases, and building a global partnership for development.

So far the Open Working Group has wrangled the possible goals into 19 focus areas (now said to be 16) in eight clusters:

Cluster 1
– Poverty eradication
– Promote equality

Cluster 2
– Gender equality and women’s empowerment
– Education
– Employment and decent work for all
– Health and population dynamics

Cluster 3
– Water and sanitation
– Sustainable agriculture, food security, and nutrition

Cluster 4
– Economic growth
– Industrialization
– Infrastructure
– Energy

Cluster 5
– Sustainable cities and human settlements
– Promote Sustainable Consumption and Production
– Climate

Cluster 6
– Conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, oceans and seas
– Ecosystems and biodiversity

Cluster 7
– Means of implementation/Global partnership for sustainable development

Cluster 8
– Peaceful and non-violent societies, rule of law and capable institutions

There’s more detail here.

No-one can say there hasn’t been widespread consultation:

Director Well for India examines a map

WBGU have now entered the debate by suggesting that development and environmental protection must be considered together and not contradict one another, the key message of the 1992 Earth Summit. Moreover, human change must operate within planetary guardrails to avoid permanent damage. Accordingly they have suggested adding an SDG entitled ‘safeguarding Earth system services’.

Within that goal they recommend six long-term targets:

1. Climate change: The warming of the climate system should be limited to 2°C. Global CO2 emissions from fossil energy sources should therefore be stopped completely by about 2070.

2. Ocean acidification: In order to protect the oceans, the pH level of the uppermost ocean layer should not fall by more than 0.2 units compared to pre-industrial figures in any major ocean region. CO2 emissions from fossil energy sources should therefore be stopped completely by about 2070 (congruent with Target 1).

3. Loss of biological diversity and ecosystem services: The human-induced loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services must be halted. Its direct anthropogenic drivers, e.g. the conversion of natural ecosystems, should be stopped by 2050 at the latest.

4. Land and soil degradation: Anthropogenic land and soil degradation must be halted. Net land degradation should be stopped by 2030 – world-wide and in all countries.

5. Risks posed by long-lived and harmful anthropogenic substances: The substitutable use of mercury and anthropogenic mercury emissions should be stopped by 2050. The release of plastic waste into the environment should be stopped worldwide by 2050. The production of nuclear fuels for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors should be stopped by 2070.

6. Loss of phosphorus: Phosphorus is an essential resource for agriculture and therefore also for food security. The release of non-recoverable phosphorus into the environment should be stopped worldwide by 2050, so that its global recycling can be achieved.


the SDGs are not an agenda ‘exclusively for developing countries’; rather, they should apply to all states. Only in this way can curbing global environmental change become a joint task for humankind.

I think you’ll find this mob suggested the 2°C guardrail which took more than a decade to be adopted in 2009. In 2009 they came up with the budget approach to emissions stabilisation, yet to be adopted by international negotiators, although it seems the obvious, rational and equitable way to share the burden. Perhaps they will have better fortune this time! At least their suggestion comes when thinking is fluid.

At least it rescues climate from a mere sub-component of Cluster 5, to an essential part of the frame for the whole exercise, which is as it should be.

Rio + 20

Civil society groups were scathing.

George Monbiot describes it as 283 paragraphs of fluff. The outcome document was given the title “The future we want”. You can read it in the first 59 pages of the official report. Go to the official site and look for a link in the top right hand corner or direct to the pdf document.

If you try reading the document you’ll soon get the idea. The verbs are affirm, recognise, acknowledge, stress, underscore, note, commit, strengthen etc, etc. They do this to everyone and everything, importantly the poor and the hungry, but also corporations large and small, small farmers, fisher folk, women, small island states, landlocked states, Africa, the oceans and seas and “Mother Earth”. In fact everything under the sun is included. You may think climate change is important. So it is, it gets three paragraphs (190-192), that’s one more than sustainable tourism (130-131) and mining (227-228). It looks as though every UN meeting, agreement and convention in the last 20 years gets a mention. For example we have the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions of the Strategic Approach to Intensive Chemical Management together with their regional and coordinating centres.

It’s a matter of ticking off and general urging, not actually doing anything. I tell a lie. The conference made three ‘decisions’. The third was to recommend that the UN Secretary General establish a registry of voluntary commitments (283) to record the financial contributions to doing everything mentioned but done by other parties. To explain the first two I’ll have to fill in some background.

Rio+20 got it’s head of power from a resolution of the UN General Assembly but it was an initiative of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) which is one of 10 functional commissions of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ECOSOC is the UN interface point with 19 specialised agencies including the IMF, the World bank, the ILO the WMO and a number of UN agencies. The CSD was spawned by the UN general Assembly in 1992 to implement Agenda 21 arising out of the June 1992 Rio Earth Summit (more correctly, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) which also spawned the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which spawned the Kyoto Protocol and holds a Conference of Parties every year, memorably the Copenhagen conference of 2009 and the last in Durban.

For reasons not identified it does appear that the Commission on Sustainable Development has been considered insufficiently effective to the point where it needs to be replaced. So at paragraph 84 we have:

We decide to establish a universal intergovernmental high-level political forum, building on the strengths, experiences, resources and inclusive participation modalities of the Commission on Sustainable development, and subsequently replacing the Commission. The high-level political forum shall follow up on the implementation of sustainable development and should avoid overlap with existing structures, bodies and entities in a cost-effective manner.

But “we” being the official representatives at the conference don’t do anything,

we decide to launch an intergovernmental and open, transparent and inclusive negotiation process under the general Assembly to define the format and organisational aspects of the high-level forum.

The actual work, I gather, is done by the UN bureaucrats answering to the Secretary General, reporting to the General Assembly, with the aim of convening the first forum before the 68th meeting (September 2013).

That was the first decision taken. The second (245-251) was to establish a new set of sustainable development goals building on and carrying forward the Millenium Development Goals due to be achieved (if that’s the word) by 2015. A working group of 30 representatives of member states, drawn from the five UN regional groups will prepare a set of goals for the General Assembly meeting in September next year.

Stephen Lacey’s report at Climate Progress suggests that the high-level forum will also comprise 30 members. This may well be the the new formula to inject a bit of vigour into the process.

The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) who advise Chancellor Merkel directly issued an interesting press release after the conference, beginning:

The international community is currently incapable of promoting the urgently needed transformation towards a sustainable society with the requisite speed and commitment, says the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). „We might well be moving towards the end of such mammoth meetings as these. Although they make a lot of noise, the very fact that so many problems are covered means that no single problem is tackled resolutely,“ says WBGU chairman Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. „The future of humanity is too precious to be left to this ongoing game of nation-state Mikado. What we now need are pioneers from all spheres of the world community.“

It’s up to a myriad of actors within the global community. They said:

At the G8, the EU and the USA were negotiating in different directions, and the tensions between newly industrialising and developing countries led to further blockades. The result is an international crisis of leadership and confidence, a “G-Zero World” in which no leading power effectively is taking the initiative and no coalitions capable of taking action are emerging. The EU’s attempt to form a sustainability coalition for a more meaningful final statement also failed.


The global transformation towards a low-carbon, sustainable society is already taking place, yet international policy-makers are currently showing no visible will to participate. (Emphasis added)

(BTW WBGU stands for Wissenschaftliche Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen. It was set up in 1992 to advise the German Government prior to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and remains the official advisory body on climate change.)

They said much the same in a policy paper after Copenhagen.

Closer to home at The Conversation Nick Rowley, having worked on the 2005 G8 and Copenhagen, says internationalism in this area is stuffed:

Our global response to climate change and sustainability must now be a process of progressive incrementalism through decisions made by national, state and local governments, investors, businesses and individuals.

In his second piece Rowley says pretty much the same again, pointing out that most of the heavy hitters amongst the PMs didn’t bother to stop off in Rio on their way home from the Mexico G20 meeting.

Ruben Zondervan and Steinar Andresen are more specific about what needs to be done other than peak talk-fests. Upgrading the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to a specialised UN agency like the FAO was actually proposed, and favoured also by WBGU, but it didn’t get up although the final document does call on the UN General Assembly to strengthen its membership, funding and role.

The WBGU press release commented favourably on the supporting program, which “showed that the transformation towards sustainability is already in full swing”. The conference site registered over 500 on-site side events over 10 days. In Rio+20 in numbers they suggest there were thousands if you count those off-site as well. In a sense the official summit was a side-show.

Problem is, in the official summit you can go backwards. In an earlier piece George Monbiot tells us what Barack Obama’s mob were up to:

The word “equitable”, the US insists, must be cleansed from the text. So must any mention of the right to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment. So must a clear target of preventing two degrees of global warming. So must a commitment to change “unsustainable consumption and production patterns”, and to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources.

Most significantly, the US delegation demands the removal of many of the foundations agreed by a Republican president in Rio in 1992. In particular, it has set out to purge all mention of the core principle of that Earth summit: common but differentiated responsibilities. This means that while all countries should strive to protect the world’s resources, those with the most money and who have done the most damage should play a greater part.

I haven’t checked every one, but my impression is that most of those suggestions failed. Definitely “common but differentiated responsibilities” survived.

After the weekend Monbiot really ripped in calling the conference the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. Governments concentrate their efforts on defending the machine – consumer capitalism – that is destroying the living Earth.

Was it too much to have asked of the world’s governments, which performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global markets and trillion-dollar bailouts, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet? It seems, sadly, that it was.

Our PM attended, but she can’t save the world on her own. Our Environment Minister stayed home. He wasn’t granted a pair by HM Opposition. Domestic political games trumps saving the planet every time!