Government hails Rio+20 success, conservationists despair
Tuesday 26 June 2012
Defra ministers have said they feel progress has been made towards a more sustainable future following the Rio+20 UN Summit held in Brazil last week.
The Earth Summit saw world leaders approve agreements drawn up earlier in the week following negotiations by 193 countries. However, development and environmental groups have criticised the draft agreement as being watered down and containing no time frames for action.
Nevertheless, addressing the final plenary, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who led the UK delegation, said, “This week we have agreed to set Sustainable Development Goals. I want to see progress in agreeing these within the post-2015 development framework, so that – as at the original Rio conference – the environment and development are again part of a coherent whole. I would like to think that the ideas we have promoted here – governments, civil society, consumers and business working together and concepts like the green economy and natural capital – will be central to the way we all behave.
“We need to turn words into action. We need to work together to change behaviours, to change all our mindsets and put our world on a more sustainable footing. That’s why the UK Environment Secretary and I have been using the unique platform that Rio provides to talk to fellow leaders from around the world about how we turn these ideas into reality.”
According to Defra, the key points for the UK outlined in the agreement are:
- Agreement to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The United Nations General Assembly will appoint a group of representatives from 30 countries by September to develop the goals, with our aim for these goals to focus on food, water and energy.
- Recognition of the importance of the green economy as a way to help nations to grow sustainably, and to help eradicate poverty.
- A call from all nations at Rio+20 for businesses to adopt ways of reporting on their sustainability performance,
- Recognition by all nations at Rio+20 of the importance of including the value of natural capital and social wellbeing into decision making will be given real force by having a UN commission undertake the work on GDP plus.
- Oceans to be given greater prominence with a commitment to extend marine conservation to on the high seas.
- A call for enhanced efforts to sustainably manage forests including reforestation, restoration and afforestation. The agreement highlights the importance of initiatives such as REDD+ in reducing emissions from deforestation.
However, environment and anti-poverty campaigners accused the Brazilian hosts of excising any potentially contentious, and therefore meaningful, commitments to change from the document before it was presented to delegates, condemning the talks to failure.
They said the final agreement contains almost no timetables or ways to monitor sustainable development goals and is weak in its commitments to shifting towards a ‘green economy’ which factors environmental and social factors into policy decisions.
Heads of state were also criticised r failing to attend the Summit, including German president Angela Merkel, United States President Barack Obama and UK premier David Cameron. Environment commentator Fiona Harvey suggested world leaders preferred inaction to the disagreements and stalemates which resulted from the Cop15 Climate Conference, settling instead for “meaningless harmony.”
There are some who claim that a number of pledges made outside of the formal proceedings could, if honoured, lead to some measurable change. Nick Clegg hosted a ‘Natural Capital Summit’ at the symposium, at which he announced 50 nations and 50 global companies have made commitments to include the value of natural resources in their accounts as part of the World Bank’s 50/50 campaign.
However, scientists from Portland, Oregon have criticised the approach many world leaders advocate, that of applying financial values to natural phenomenon. Ecologists from the Ecological Society of America have questioned the now widely accepted practice of placing a dollar value on ‘ecosystem services,’ free services provided by nature which benefit humans, including clean air and water and insect pollination.
The idea of marketised ‘ecosystem services’ has surged in popularity since the 2005 United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, although not all experts are comfortable with this approach, which they say normalises making decisions on purely financial grounds and consolidates the markets’ power.
Bobby Cochran, Executive Director of the Willamette Partnership said the practice has benefits in that it puts important environmental considerations into a context which policy makers recognise, though he admitted the approach is a last resort, in that "If you don't put a dollar on it, decision makers are not going to take it seriously."
However, Emily Bernhardt of Duke University, North Carolina countered, "Natural ecosystems provide us with numerous services, not all of which are easily quantified. A challenge inherent in new ecosystem service markets is ensuring that commodifying one or more services doesn't lead to unintended consequences for non-target ecosystem attributes."
She pointed out that proxies for ecosystem services are often difficult to establish and may not match up and other important services may be disregarded if they are a more difficult sell than others. She also said maximizing the profitability or effectiveness of one aspect of an ecosystem may affect other essential ecosystem properties. The scientists urged caution in adopting this approach to nature.