Future We Choose?

by Deborah Tripley, Director, Planetary Boundaries Initiative

The ‘future we choose’ as currently reflected in the final Earth Summit outcome text (Rio+20)is unlikely to be one chosen by civil society. It is unlikely to even reflect the best advice given by the world’s leading scientists.

Instead, a gulf is now developing between the future reflected in the outcome document and the one called for by the NGOs. Yesterday, it became apparent that a gulf was developing also between the world’s leading scientists, many of whom sit as representatives of the UN Secretary of General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, and what is being negotiated by delegates.

Leading dignitaries such as Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prme Minister of Norway and author of the 1992 Earth Summit principles of sustainable development ‘the Brundtland Report’ yesterday personally issued their own Declaration of Principles to the Earth Summit.

The Declaration was signed by former Prime Ministers, leading scientists, professors and experts, including four Nobel Laureates , the Head of the European Environment Agency, President of the IUCN, and Maurice Strong, Under Secretary General and Special Advisor to the Secretary-General.

Their intervention comes after another high level scientific report submitted to the UN by the Global Environmental Outlook assessment (GEO5). This report also concludes that time is running out, that the scientific evidence is compelling and that there is a need for transformational steps to be taken to avoid earth system tipping points.

Yesterday’s Declaration starts boldly stating that ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal’ and that ‘we are on the threshold of a future with unprecedented environmental risks.’ It argues that human activities are generating unacceptable risks that ‘will undermine the resilience of the planet and its inhabitants’.

‘Human pressures on the planet, should they continue on a business as usual trajectory, will trigger abrupt and irreversible changes with catastrophic outcomes for human societies and life as we know it’.

The Declaration also reflects the scientific theory, proposed by Rockstrom et al, that the world is reaching tipping points and crossing a number of earth system thresholds. It argues for a greater transformation guided by Sustainable Development Goals. To help with the transformation the experts believe that Heads of State need to agree on a fair and sustainable use of Earth’s natural capital, with a mandate for action with clear targets and timetables. They say, ‘We must accept the inviolable necessity of living within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries’.

One consistent theme throughout all of the NGO dialogues at Rio is the necessity for urgent leadership from Heads of State and an outcome document reflective of transformational governance.

However, the current Outcome document is entirely silent when it comes to reflecting the type of approach advocated yesterday by the world’s leading scientific experts. Instead, those negotiating the current outcome document appear bent on reaching a settled text as quickly as possible which in its present form leans heavily towards development and economic considerations.

This is not good news and bodes ill for the likely legacy factor from the Earth Summit conference.

As Rajendra Pachauri mentioned yesterday at the Global Sustainability Panel’s event, “We should all heed the words of Ghandi, ‘speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.’”

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