Innovation & Insights
On 20-22 June 2012, Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development faces a double challenge – developing a green economy based on sustainable development and on poverty eradication, and crafting a matching institutional framework for this purpose. An unavoidable question remains: after successive conferences and calls for action in 1992, 1995 and 2002 are we still none the wiser in identifying the route to a green economy?
When considering drivers of success or failure at Rio+20, we can benefit from looking at how the debates were launched and then developed. There the role of scientific data appears to be an important factor. In the light of this, are we now better placed going in to Rio+20?
Undeniably, 1972 was a landmark year for environmental action.
First of all, the UN Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm and for the first time recognised the links between environment and development. Secondly, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was set up that very same year. Nevertheless, the UN Commission on Environment and Development (commonly referred to as the Brundtland Commission) focusing on sustainability was not set up until 1983 and only published its Commission report in 1987.
Contrary to the sustainable development agenda, the discussions on climate change continued uninterrupted throughout the 1970s, and in 1979 the first World Climate Conference was held in Geneva. It was one of the first major international meetings on climate change. Essentially a scientific conference, it was attended by scientists from a wide range of disciplines and was the starting point of the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The mandate of IPCC was to prepare scientific data on climate change and possible response strategies as well as to assess the social and economic impact of climate change. IPCC published several reports in the next few decades which helped trigger a debate about the facts and arguments presented.
Although the summit in 1992 established a number of important principles on sustainability, critically there was no similar process engaged for the other Rio agreements. Only the UNFCCC could rely on scientific evidence to make its case. As an example, the recent acknowledgement that international biodiversity conservation targets have been missed has been attributed to a lack of scientific knowledge for benchmarking progress and outlining future scenarios. Important questions are whether lack of scientific evidence is the principal reason why the world has failed, so far, on sustainability, and how this should be taken into account ahead of Rio+20 when seeking actionable outcomes.
Figure 1: Road to Rio+20, a sustainable development timeline