Rio +20

In the run up to the Rio +20 Earth Summit, a number of commentators were asked by think tank the Green Alliance and the RSPB to give their views on what the summit ought to aim for.

An abridged version of their thoughts follows – the full version is available at

At our 2012 AGM, two further commentators – Andy Atkins for Friends of the Earth, and Sarah Reader of World Development will give their verdict on what  Rio +20 actually achieved.

Expectations prior to Rio +20 as captured by Green Alliance:


[The first Earth Summit] resulted in real, global action, including the birth of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

…one of the Rio summit’s most important theme is building the green economy: eradicating poverty, protecting the environment, meeting our future needs, and ensuring prosperity can be felt by all.

So, three priorities and three clear ideas of what we want to achieve;

  • an agreement to develop Sustainable Development Goals,
  • the development of GDP plus growth indicators,
  • and calls for a global framework on sustainability reporting.

Three steps towards sustainable development and the green growth on which real prosperity depends. The UK is clear: we need to show leadership and we need to be ambitious, for developed countries, as well as those that are developing, and for this generation, as well as all those who follow.

TONY JUNIPER (ex Friends of the Earth Director)

Six agreements came out of the first Rio Earth Summit, three of which were major, legally binding conventions: on climate change, biological diversity and desertification.

Looking back to that moment, and with the benefit of hindsight, the first Rio summit was clearly a major landmark although, it has to be said, it didn’t seem like that at the time. In our view, the climate change convention was woefully inadequate, the one on biological diversity was not much better, and the agreement on desertification was too weak to make much difference.

But it is remarkable how the energy that took the world to Brazil in 1992 has been progressively sapped, to the point today where it is normal for major summits to agree not very much at all. The deadlock that emerged at the climate change negotiations last year in Durban is a case in point. After years of disappointment and failure, with the collapse of talks at Copenhagen in 2009 as perhaps the most obvious and spectacular example, countries basically threw in the towel in

Durban and decided to start again.

The fact that momentum has diminished in this way is all the more remarkable considering the state of knowledge back then as compared with now. In

1992 climate science was far more equivocal than today, yet countries felt sufficiently confident about what it said to enter into a major new agreement. Now the science is far stronger, but countries are paradoxically less likely than ever to agree to anything.


IAN JOHNSON (Economist, The Club of Rome)

As the Rio+20 negotiators gather in June they will face a broad agenda. High on that agenda will be the green economy: the need to redirect our economies and economic growth towards sustainability.

Rio+20 is another key opportunity to sort out the idiocies and contradictions of the economic growth model that we have pursued for the past half a century. But unless bold moves are made, that opportunity will be missed. A lick of green paint here and there, an increase in renewable energy targets and marginal efficiency improvements will do little to change our current economic paradigm.

Economics is based upon a false system of accounting that assumes all growth is good. Current measures regard the economic benefits of war, pollution, crime, rising oil prices, terrorism, natural calamities, water scarcity and deforestation as equivalent to activities that promote better nutrition, housing, education, healthcare, physical comforts, social harmony, recreation and enjoyment. National accounts need to be re-engineered to address this.

Beyond environmental economics

Our environment is precious but its management must be balanced carefully with the needs and aspirations of people. In other words, we must manage our natural, social and human capital in a manner that provides the basis for sustained prosperity and prudent management of the planet’s resources.

Instead, we are witnessing a triple divorce that has disconnected the economy from the fundamental role it is intended to serve.

First is the rift discussed above between the economy and ecology. The blind pursuit of more production and consumption without regard for the consequences, and unbridled growth that takes no account of associated ecological costs, is acting like a cancer that is rapidly destroying the foundations on which human life depends.

Second is the widening rift between production and employment. The aim of raising labour productivity has given rise to an obsession with eliminating labour altogether from the production process, creating a world with ever growing production capacity, while severely limiting the number of people with the purchasing power necessary to avail of it. As a result, global unemployment remains the major social ill of our time. The inability of our current economic paradigm to provide remunerative work for the vast numbers coming onto the job market will result in an erosion of social capital, social dislocation and increased poverty on a scale we have never seen before.


Third is the rift between finance and the economy resulting in a divorce of financial markets from the real economy. Markets have shifted out of the real economy and into illusory wealth creation with disastrous results for all but a handful of lucky speculators. Investment in the real economy to build the next generation of low carbon infrastructure and provide much needed jobs has been curtailed. Yet

$4 trillion a day of currency trades float around the world, making money for those involved but offering little real world impact. Financial markets must become the servant of the economy and the economy must fulfil its original purpose: serving humanity and enabling the production of goods and services that create a more liveable and peaceful planet, and one that is in line with its natural carrying capacity.

A new economy must heal these rifts, reengineering the fragmented economic system into a single, understandable and comprehensive whole that works for people and for the planet. We need to question the assumptions that underlie current economics and alter the system of metrics by which we assess progress, ensuring that valuations reflect the real contributions and the full direct, indirect and inter-temporal costs to human and environmental welfare. The irrational, unsustainable, inequitable and often uneconomic ways in which we deploy, utilise and consume resources must be eliminated.

And the policies by which we establish the relative prices of various forms of capital, natural and social, must be changed. We need to review and revamp our concepts and models of growth to ensure they meet the needs of both present and future generations, with particular attention to the future of work and the maintenance of our indispensable and high value natural systems.

Those gathered in Rio to celebrate twenty years of change must reflect upon the seriousness of the challenges before them.  A major overhaul of current economic thinking and a willingness to move to a new generation of enlightened institutions should be the agenda for Rio.

Sadly, it may not turn out that way. As governments haggle and wordsmith over well worn, meaningless texts, the opportunity will be lost once more. A new document will be produced and heralded, but largely ignored. We can do better. We could seize the century. Those at Rio could announce the start of a new progressive dialogue on a new global economy and they could agree practical changes in

that direction. It would be a start.

SIR BRIAN HOSKINS (Committee on Climate Change)  & ALISTAIR MCVICAR (Grantham Institute for Climate Change)

Climate developments since Rio 1992

Since the 1992 Earth Summit, CO2 emissions due to human activity have risen by almost 50 per cent and CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen by more than ten per cent. The levels of other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have also increased significantly. Global temperatures have continued to fluctuate with the natural variability of the climate system, rather than rise continuously. There has been little change in global mean temperatures over the past decade, but smoothing out the natural variability reveals that mean temperatures have continued to rise at about 0.1°C per decade. Global mean sea level has risen about six centimetres since

1992 and is currently rising at a rate of about three centimetres per decade. The melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice is now contributing at least one third of this rise. Arctic sea ice cover has also been decreasing at all times of year. After smoothing out the year-to-year fluctuations, the minimum area of the ice cover in September has decreased by about 20 per cent since 1992.

The intersection of climate change policy and science

With the uncertainty due to limitations in our understanding of the climate system it is currently impossible to be absolutely confident that a 2°C target is actually possible to meet. However, many calculations agree that it is likely it can be met if the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity slows rapidly, with emissions peaking around the year 2020 and then dropping rapidly to a level in 2050 that is at least 50 per cent below that in 1990.

Unless some new urgency is imparted to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is unlikely that temperature rises will be kept to 2°C or less. And the 2°C target itself is not an absolute, in the sense that we cannot say that a rise of 1.9°C is safe whereas a rise of 2.1°C is disastrous. For example, the sea level rise associated with a smaller temperature rise may be very dangerous for a low-lying region. It is simply that the likelihood of significant impacts on the human and natural worlds increases as global temperature rises. These changes could be smooth, such as a gradually increasing temperature, or sudden like one of the sharp transitions mentioned above.

The voluntary Copenhagen Pledges, even with their most strict interpretation, imply total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 well above the peak of the 2°C scenarios. The decision in Durban not even to activate emissions reductions before 2020 does not augur well for the required rapid reduction in emissions after 2020.

Despite uncertainties it is clear that we are performing an extremely dangerous experiment with our one planet.

Limiting the globally average temperature change to near 2°C may still be possible. But, it will be extremely challenging and will require co-operation and organisation on global, national and regional scales. Credible, international targets are required and these targets need to be supported by delivery plans at individual country levels.

Action is needed now, and so the Rio+20 conference, the second Earth Summit, is perfectly timed to bring renewed urgency to the issue of climate change. It will view it in the context of the range of pressures we are putting on our planet. It will also view it in the context of its overarching aims: to reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet.

Reflecting this, the two predominant themes for the Rio+20 conference are a green economy and the institutional framework for sustainable development. Tackling climate change effectively lies at the heart of both these themes.

Rio+20 should kick start this process by agreeing:

• the range of issues to be covered by SDGs: these should include targets for reducing poverty and food insecurity, reducing our carbon and water use, conserving biodiversity and protecting forests, while increasing our use of renewable energy and recycling;

• to ensure SDGs are adopted by all UN member states, contain measurable targets, and have a 2015-30 timeline; and

• a framework for collaborating with business; the process around SDGs must involve business in developing and helping to deliver the goals.



In 2009, Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre brought together a group of leading earth system scientists to come up with the concept of planetary boundaries. They identified a set of nine earth system processes, such as the freshwater cycle, climate regulation, and the nitrogen cycle, which are critical for keeping the planet in the stable state known as the Holocene that has been so beneficial to humanity over the past 10,000 years.

Under too much pressure from human activity, any one of these processes could be pushed into abrupt and even irreversible change. To avoid that risk, the scientists proposed a set of boundaries below their danger zones, such as setting a boundary of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to prevent dangerous climate change. Together the nine boundaries form a circle, and Rockström and co have called the area within it “a safe operating space for humanity.”

Yet a critical part of the picture is clearly still missing. This safe operating space may protect the environment, but it could also leave many millions of people exposed to extreme poverty and deep social inequality. We can only pursue global environmental sustainability if we simultaneously pursue far greater global equity. That means adding the concept of social boundaries to the picture. Just as there is an environmental ceiling of resource use, above which lies unacceptable environmental degradation, so too is there a social foundation of resource use, below which lie unacceptable human deprivations.

What kind of deprivations exactly? Human rights provide the cornerstone for defining that, but an early indication of the 21st century priorities to be tackled comes from the social issues raised by governments in the run-up to Rio+20. In their official submissions to the conference, the world’s governments highlighted 11 critical social deprivations, covering lack of healthcare, food, water, income, education, resilience to shocks, voice, jobs, energy, gender equality, and social equity. Together these constitute the social foundation shown here.

Between the social foundation and the environmental ceiling lies a space, shaped like a doughnut, which is both the safe and just space for humanity.

The earth system scientists estimate that humanity has already crossed at least three of the nine planetary boundaries, for climate change, nitrogen use, and biodiversity loss. Likewise, UN statistics show that humanity is falling far below the social foundation on all eight dimensions for which data are available.

Around 13 per cent of people are undernourished, indicated by the blue gap below the social boundary for food, 19 per cent have no access to electricity and 21 per cent live on less than $1.25 per day.

Putting planetary and social boundaries together in this way tells an extraordinary story. Many millions of people still live appallingly far below the social foundation while, collectively, humanity has already exceeded several critical planetary boundaries. It’s a powerful sign of just how deeply unequal and unsustainable the path of global development has been.

But the really striking implication here is that ending poverty for everyone alive today need not be a source of stress on planetary boundaries. Providing the additional calories needed by the 13 per cent of the world’s population facing hunger (850 million people) would require around one per cent of the current global food supply.6 Bringing electricity to the 19 per cent of the world’s population (1.3

billion people) who currently lack it could be achieved with less than a one per cent increase in global CO2 emissions. And ending income poverty for the 21 per cent of people who live on less than $1.25 a day (1.4 billion people) would require just

0.2 per cent of global income.

What is the biggest source of planetary boundary stress today?


The excessive consumption levels of roughly the wealthiest ten per cent of people in the world, and the resource intensive production patterns of companies producing the goods and services that they buy. A mere 11 per cent of the global population generates around 50 per cent of global carbon emissions. The richest ten per cent of

people in the world hold 57 per cent of global income. And one third of the world’s sustainable nitrogen budget is used to produce meat for people in the EU, just seven per cent of the world’s population.

It is clear that, if humanity is to live between social and planetary boundaries, there will have to be far greater equity in resource use, both within and between countries. But there will also have to be far greater efficiency in how resources are transformed to meet human needs. Around 30 per cent of the world’s food supply is currently lost in harvesting, along the supply chain, or is thrown away by consumers. Indeed, industrialised countries throw away almost as much food as is produced in sub- Saharan Africa every year. Redistributing resource use, and raising resource efficiency are clearly both essential to the transition.

This ‘doughnut’ is a compellingly simple image of sustainable development, but what difference could it make to how we approach the challenge? It doesn’t give us the answers to how we achieve sustainable development, but perhaps that is where its power lies: by starting from a different perspective it can prompt us to ask new questions, and see challenges from unfamiliar angles.

One of the most important implications that it brings out is the evident need to get beyond GDP, towards a far richer conception of what constitutes economic development. GDP’s dominance is clearly past its sell-by date. The global crises of environmental degradation and extreme human deprivation urgently demand a more nuanced starting point for economic theory and policy making.

Faced with planetary boundaries alone, some policy makers have been heard to say that they present a limit to economic development. But when planetary boundaries are combined with social boundaries, it is hard to disagree that together they present a compelling vision for inclusive and sustainable economic development. Because it is between social and planetary boundaries where humanity has the greatest chance to thrive. If Rio+20 could pick up this compass and put it to use, it could well help us to head firmly in the right direction.

TARA RAO (FairGreenSolutions)

The growing prevalence of the green economy narrative exacerbates the disconnect between the three strands of sustainable development, as it only focuses on two: environment and economy.

If it continues to shape sustainable development thinking then it must explicitly integrate the social strand and the notion of equity. A focus on equity will help to ensure that the foundations for achieving sustainable development are in place, providing for levelled entitlement, and the opportunity for all to access and contribute to the benefits of progress.

The commitment to building an equitable green economy holds the potential to redraw the sustainability map. Environmentally, this would involve a transition that keeps consumption levels within the earth’s carrying capacity. And, in terms of equity, a collaborative and equitable transition requires commitment to a common humanity, expressed in global resolve and national plans for action. It provides the basis for a new understanding of multilateralism, collective action, and national development planning, creating not a monolith global economy, but multiple green economies.

Defining the green economy

There is a vital need to identify what a green economy means. This will help to overcome legitimate concerns about how the approach could play out and ensure that it is an equitable and robust means for achieving sustainable development.

Building a clear, common understanding is key but, so far, a definition of the green economy has eluded the Rio+20 process.

A group of experts, of which I was one, came together with the support of the Danish 92 Group Forum on Sustainable Development to consider what a green economy must include. Our work led to this proposed definition:

• the green economy is not a state but a process of transformation and a constant dynamic progression;

• the green economy does away with the systemic distortions and disfunctionalities of the current mainstream economy and results in human wellbeing and equitable access to opportunity for all peoples, while safeguarding environmental and economic integrity, in order to remain within the planet’s finite carrying capacity; and

• the economy cannot be green without being equitable.

Addressing the key challenges: food, water and energy

Food, water and energy are among the priority issues that progress towards an equitable green economy must focus on. They are central to advancing equity and sustainable development, as reflected by the fact that they are central both to discussions around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Rio process.

There are strong interrelationships between the issues. For example, there are increasing concerns about the intensifying competition between energy generation and food production when it comes to land and water use. It will be impossible to secure an equitable transformation if these tightly connected issues are looked at separately.

The recognition of the water, food and energy security nexus is helpful in this regard. Even so, it is useful to consider the central objectives in relation to each area, as they have implications for both domestic and international policy agendas in the north and the south. Key objectives, integrating the access and security dimensions as part of sustainability, are:


Food: eradicate food vulnerability and disparity to build resilience, increase opportunity, and improve health and well-being through sustainable food


Water: equitable access to freshwater for human uses within the limits of protection of freshwater resources; and

Energy: develop energy pathways that target energy deprivation and sustainable use to ensure access to clean and sustainable energy for all.


The UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) recognises that climate change threatens to

compound all the other problems faced by people and the planet over the next few decades. So, while we call for justice and social change, any solutions to wider problems that fail to recognise this will stumble early on.

Climate change is our generation’s issue. We will inherit the impacts of the climate change that world leaders have already, irrevocably, committed us to due to their failure to take ambitious action. But just because we identify with the issue and see a key role for ourselves as young people it does not absolve those currently in power of the responsibility to act.

Business leaders and politicians hold the levers of change. Our job, as part of an international youth movement, is to use Rio+20 and other such platforms as opportunities to reach leaders, to make them hear our voices and respond to our visions for change.

In the UK. A domestic focus on the green economy:


As a developed country, the UK has a responsibility to reduce its emissions and to show leadership on building a green economy. This transition will provide meaningful, decent and accessible green jobs that will help to tackle youth unemployment, as well as provide UK plc with a world leading clean energy sector.

In light of the current economic crisis, many have let the environment take a back seat, or have labeled climate change too difficult to deal with. But we live in a finite world. The rising tide of human demand is putting unprecedented pressures on our planet that are simply not sustainable. The economic crisis is a symptom of the culture of constant demand in which we live, not a separate, more urgent problem.

Therefore, a multilateral summit on sustainable development is precisely what we need right now. We can use Rio+20 to bring the debate into the mainstream.

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