Rio +20 and the Importance of Planetary Boundaries

by Victor Anderson, Senior Policy Officer, Green Economy, WWF-UK

The UN sustainable development conference in Rio – June 20th/21st/22nd – is an important opportunity for moving “planetary boundaries” on from discussion in the scientific community and into the fields of politics, law, and economics.

Although the agenda for Rio is exceptionally wide – highlighting particularly ‘green economy’ and institutional reform, and taking in on the way the future of oceans, forests, and most of the rest of the world – expectations for the conference’s achievements are not currently very high.

Whatever governments do or don’t sign up to, it is however very clear that Rio has already worked as a catalyst for whole sets of discussions in the few years leading up to the conference, particularly on the implications of ‘green economy’, the science of global environmental change, and the responsibilities of the business community. All the signs are that these discussions will continue, and Rio will prove to have given them an important boost and focus.

The conference itself is unlikely to agree to much (and possibly nothing) that is legally binding. We have to look for other ways in which something can be achieved there. Discussions leading up to Rio have identified three ways which are particularly important.

One is the setting of goals and indicators for the world community. The focus has been on likely agreement to establish a set of Sustainable Development Goals, as part of a new framework of global goals expected to come into operation in 2015. There has also been discussion, with potentially very far-reaching implications, of ‘natural capital’ valuation and ‘beyond GDP’ indicators.

Secondly, there is the importance of mobilising finance for the delivery of whatever gets agreed in principle at Rio. A key controversial issue here is the phasing out of subsidies for fossil fuels and unsustainable agriculture and fisheries, which would free up government money to be redirected into investment in the natural world and other aspects of transition to green economy.

A third area is the crucial question of corporate reporting. There is a great deal of support internationally for raising standards, especially on reporting about environmental impacts and risks. Purely voluntary moves by business are progressing but not fast enough – yet on the other hand, there is virtually zero chance that governments will all agree this year to tighten up reporting on a global and compulsory basis. Yet there is also a whole spectrum of possibilities in between. Whatever the exact wording ends up being, we need Rio to make as much progress as possible on this issue – despite what has so far been opposition from the US and Canada.

Where do “planetary boundaries” fit into this picture? Rio won’t reach agreement on what the Sustainable Development Goals are going to be – it will set up a process for negotiating them, and deciding on indicators and arrangements to monitor them. So long as the range of SD Goals is reasonably wide-ranging in terms of environmental issues, these goals and indicators could be connected up with work on planetary boundaries, and already the key Rockström et al science papers on boundaries have suggested a set of indicators. Similarly, connections could be made with ‘natural capital’ measurement and ‘beyond GDP’ indicators. These are issues which need to be approached on an interdisciplinary basis, with ecological economics having a crucial role to play.

One key question here is how to get the methodology of economic valuation to fully take into account boundaries or thresholds, when the assumptions of economics make it easier for it to deal with gradual trade-offs.

On the mobilisation of finance, “planetary boundaries” analysis can help to identify which are the most damaging current subsidies. Clearly fossil fuel subsidies are playing a part in pushing the world further and further beyond the climate boundary, and agricultural subsidies are implicated in the crossing of the boundary for nitrogen and phosphorus. The boundaries analysis could also help in the devising of new environmental taxes.

“Corporate sustainability reporting” is a welcome and often-repeated phrase. But as soon as it is anyone’s job to actually do some of the reporting, they need to work with some concept of what constitutes “sustainability” and what needs to be reported on. Again, planetary boundaries analysis can help to identify this.

The Rio agenda is very wide-ranging, and there are many other points at which the planetary boundaries analysis is relevant. My comments here simply highlight some of the relevance of planetary boundaries to issues which have emerged as the most prominent leading up to the conference. So much is going on that there is no possibility that Rio will mark the end of any of these processes.


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