It’s the planet, stupid

Sustainable development may be a troubled phrase but it does focus on the right question. The Rio+20 Conference in June will force all those pressing social, economic and environmental problems out of their separate policy compartments into the reality of our interconnected global crisis.

The test for the spate of feeder events spawned by Rio+20 – such as next month’s Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference in London – is to stay tuned to the fate of the planet, as distinct from whichever channel of interest shouts loudest.

The climate conferences, the food summits, the water weeks, the decade on biodiversity – all have energetically ploughed their separate furrows, their pleas to be “mainstreamed” in government policies as blinkered as they are futile.

It’s not difficult to locate examples of the damaging inconsistencies that come with all that jostling for the same political elbow-room. Take global warming for a start. International climate change agreements have adopted two degrees as a tolerance threshold for average temperature rise.

How did this get past the ocean scientists who know that potentially catastrophic coral bleaching is already happening? How many experts on ocean acidification are comfortable with the implied CO2 concentration of 350ppm?

Are biologists confident that plant and animal species can migrate successfully in response to habitat change on the scale commensurate with two degrees of warming?

We could argue that any political process will doom each branch of science to the vagaries of decision-making. Or we could observe that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the poor relation of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The latter combines greater institutional muscle-power with the herd instinct of the NGO movement. The oceans tend to be off the radar altogether, the science of acidification in particular still catching up.

Environmental finance also reflects this sectoral hierarchy. The Climate Convention has succeeded in extracting a promise from the richer countries to mobilise funds of up to $100 billion per annum by 2020.

A high level UN panel has investigated how this might be achieved. And the controversial method of engaging private sector finance through the issue of credits for carbon trading appeared to receive endorsement in the agreement reached at the Durban conference last December.

Although the CBD has approved strategic biodiversity targets for 2020, it has performed limited calculations of their costs, has no biodiversity fund in place, and has secured no promises of multilateral financing. Innovative “market mechanisms” were rejected by developing countries at the most recent conference in 2010.

Will the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference transcend these political and economic imbalances?

At first sight, the list of advance “Policy Briefs” helpfully issued by the organisers is distinctly unpromising. The usual sectoral suspects queue up for attention – water, food, biodiversity, energy, health.

But one unusual title stands out – “Interconnected Risks and Solutions for a planet under pressure.” This turns out to be an excellent summary text with a set of recommendations which balance the management of risk to the planet with accelerated monitoring and research into the environmental limits.

There’s even a welcome warning that “evidence is mounting that (the two degree) limit carries substantial risks for societies.”

The ultimate direction of the conference may depend on the opening lecture to be given by Professor Sir Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Environment and Rural Affairs.

He is billed to appear “on behalf of the Blue Planet Laureates.” Past winners of this environmental prize have this week published a synthesis of their views about the current state of the environment and development. Sir Bob himself made the presentation to government ministers attending the UN Environment Programme’s governing council meeting in Nairobi.

Although the Blue Planet Prize is awarded for “outstanding achievements in scientific research,” the laureates ramble a little aimlessly into development issues such as gender, population and universal access to energy. These are indeed critical matters but should they set the tone for the London event which aspires to “provide scientific leadership towards the 2012 UN Rio +20 conference?”

The Blue Planet recommendations are greatly redeemed by one sentence which is absolutely spot on: “governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.” And Professor Watson is wonderfully concise in the interview (below) recorded for the Nairobi event.

The influence of the Planet Under Pressure 2012 outcome could depend on which version of Sir Bob turns up in London on March 25.

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this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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