Rio+20: notes for scientists: 12th March

The voice of Sha Zukang, leader of the UN Rio+20 conference, rang out last week:

My message is: come to Rio ready to commit. I encourage major groups and other stakeholders to announce at Rio+20 over one thousand new voluntary commitments for a sustainable future

As there are only nine “major groups” enjoying privileged status in the Rio negotiating process, that leaves rather a lot of voluntary commitments for the scientific and technology group to identify.

I’ve been unable to locate any clarification of what exactly Mr Sha has in mind. However, rescue was unexpectedly at hand from his opposite number at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Speaking in London on Friday at IIED’s Barbara Ward lecture 2012, Christiana Figueres seemed to echo the message:

do not depend 100% on governments because they cannot deliver the 100%….everybody has to accept responsibility for contributing as much as we can in our sphere of influence

Probably the best “voluntary commitment” from the major groups is to manoevre their “spheres of influence” into conjunction as much as possible. The Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference does talk about “a new vision for trans-disciplinary research and broader partnerships.”


Conjunction with NGO campaign groups might be a good place to start for the scientists. The NGOs need all the friends they can get just now.

Christiana Figueres was not afraid to tell the largely NGO audience on Friday what they least wanted to hear about multilateral environmental agreements:

I will tell you for sure this process will continue to go slowly because. ….there is not enough well-up from the bottom up. I don’t see millions of citizens standing somewhere demanding climate action. I saw a couple of thousand in Durban….

In democratic societies, we get the politicians we deserve.


If any young scientists (under 30) feel irritated by these observations of senior UN environment officials, they can vent their spleen in a new Rio+20 competition announced by a coalition of activist groups.

Write a two minute speech conveying your vision of the future, record it on video and get some viral response going on social media networks. The winners end up delivering their masterpiece to world leaders in Rio in June.


In his interview, Sha Zukang reminded us that: “At Rio 1992, Major Groups were largely confined to a global forum for civil society in Flamengo Park.”

Now they’re part of the official proceedings. Sometimes I despair whether this is such a great idea.

“The nine principles of a green economy,” a document emerging from a recent “Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum” organised by the UN Environment Programme, hasn’t helped.

UNEP’s championing of the green economy has hit choppy waters and this exercise may have been an attempt to calm things down.

I scrutinised the list of participants and reference documents for evidence of input from the scientific and technology group but found none. Apart from dollops from labour and business interests, it’s a largely NGO-inspired manifesto.

This is my territory and therefore embarrassing to discover such an awful compilation. The Forum demands no fewer than 52 principles to frame a green economy, reduced to nine by the artificial device of sub-headings. So much for transcending silos of interest.

More to the point, I’m not sure that we need any new principles. We already have the 1992 Rio Principles for Environment and Development which address the core principle of a green economy by requesting that “national authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs.”

What we need is reaffirmation of the Rio Principles, which have been allowed to decay. And to boost the good cause of the green economy, we need concise practical steps which address the social and environmental failings of the current model and which remain faithful to the overriding 1992 Rio Declaration.

The Green Economy Coalition is asking for comments on its nine principles by Thursday in the hope of inserting a second draft into the Rio+20 process.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK