Following Up Rio +20

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

How should we follow up what happened at Rio +20? What conclusions can we draw from the conference and the process leading up to it? It is time to take stock of what happened and what didn’t happen, and start to see what to do next.

Rio established some important processes. Three in particular are relevant to planetary boundaries work –

A 30-member expert committee was set up to make recommendations to the UN about how to mobilise finance for transition to green economy. With nothing legally binding agreed or discussed at Rio, finance has become the main means of implementation. Keeping within the planet’s boundaries is going to be expensive – although far less expensive of course than failing to do so! Innovative sources of finance could be used not only to raise money, but also to discourage environmentally damaging activities (which could be defined in terms of their impact on planetary boundaries).

The UN Statistical Commission is to lead a process to investigate indicators to complement GDP. It will be important to ensure that these include indicators which relate to planetary boundaries. The authors of the key scientific papers on planetary boundaries proposed a series of such indicators.

There is to be a 30-member group of government representatives to discuss establishing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the world community. It is currently unclear whether this will be combined with the review David Cameron is co-chairing on how to follow up the existing Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), which run out in 2015. PBI will be arguing that SDGs and ‘post-MDGs’ should take into account planetary boundaries, for example in the wording and indicators for any goals on food, water, and energy.

The Rio outcome document also acknowledged the importance of corporate sustainability reporting. Efforts in this area are moving ahead. Again, it will be useful to include a planetary boundaries perspective in this work, which is currently furthest advanced in the areas of carbon emissions and water use, but should be developed to include, for example, impacts and risks on biodiversity and land use change.

However perhaps the most interesting aspect of Rio, and the most important to follow up, concerns what was not agreed. In the run-up to Rio in Europe particularly, there appeared to be a bandwagon for a set of ideas and phrases which seemed almost certain to find their way into the Rio outcome document.

The most prominent of these, and the most central to this thinking, were the terms “natural capital” and “payment for ecosystem services”. Neither appears in the Rio outcome document. Neither was acceptable to the G77 bloc of developing countries.

Any future agreements will have to take into account the G77 objections and respond to them. The most vehement objections came from the ALBA group of radical Latin American countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc), but many of their objections were taken up in a more pragmatic form by other Latin American governments, and in Africa and Asia.

The biggest stumbling block here was equity. “Natural capital” and “payment for ecosystem services”, which address particularly the biodiversity and land use change boundaries, are both essentially about including features of the natural world within the global market economy. Although this would have both advantages and disadvantages, at least if it happens it should not be on an inequitable and unfair basis.

The problem here for policy-makers is a deep one. These “ecological market” ideas, made prominent for example in the TEEB studies (‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’) derive from environmental economics, which is a sub-discipline of mainstream market economics. Environmental economics is the application of the concepts of market economic theory to environmental problems. That has some usefulness in terms of lobbying and persuasion, especially if you are trying to explain the seriousness of environmental problems to people who are steeped in market economic thinking.

However, it also has a fatal flaw. Market economic theory does not have equity or social justice built into its foundations. It has ‘efficiency’, ‘enterprise’, ‘rationality’, ‘choice’ (though of course we could argue about the meanings it attaches to each of those), but it doesn’t even claim to have ‘fairness’ there. So when its concepts are applied to the environment, the policies which emerge do something for the environment but nothing for fairness.

Not only is this morally wrong, but also in terms of practical politics, as Rio showed, it fails because the G77 countries won’t buy it.

We are therefore left with a stalemate. Whilst the vast majority of the world’s environmental problems continue to get worse, some of the policy approaches which many environmentalists advocate cannot get agreement from the global South. We are going to have to take apart this economic thinking and come up with something less tied to conventional economics and more grounded in science and equity if there is to be any chance of arriving at a set of laws, policies and governance arrangements which can keep us within planetary boundaries.

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