Planet Under Pressure 2012 – final day

March 29 – DAY 4: Planetary Stewardship
8.55am: As we’re waiting for the minister to get the final day proceedings under way at 9.00, here are some quick highlights from DAY 3:

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change released its full report on global food security. The recommendations were first published for the Durban climate conference last December.

The 1000-word press release fails to mention the title of the report which I can reveal is “Achieving food security in the face of climate change.” There’s another awful animation video of the type which are proliferating these days.

But the thrust of the recommendations – that food issues should be integrated more closely with the response to climate change – is consistent with the “get joined up” message of this conference. Alas, it fell on deaf ears in Durban.

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We were introduced to a new way of calculating GDP which combines traditional output with the trend in “natural and human capital.” The full Inclusive Wealth Report will be published by the United Nations University’s International Human Dimensions Programme at Rio+20.

In the press conference, Professor Anantha Duraiappah, Executive Director of UNU-IHDP, asserted that the “inclusive wealth” of India had grown more than Australia in the period 1990 -2008. This was due to the disproportionate increase in human capital which relates to education and training.

I found this a little unconvincing. Apart from its elite colleges, India’s education system is an embarrassment to the country. The high level of child labour is due in part to the widespread absence of a decent local primary school. And for most of that period, the aspiration of thousands of bright Indian students was to attend a university in Australia.

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A session titled “Going beyond 2°C of global warming?” had some tough words on the whole edifice that has built around this threshold. Here’s a couple of illustrations from the abstracts of papers under discussion:

the paper claims that the lack of credibility of the global 2°C objective hinders negotiations and reduces the credibility of and the trust in the whole UNFCCC process

it is increasingly unlikely that global economies will be de-carbonised in time to stay below +2°C, and anyway we need to allow for other global environmental changes that are just as urgent, such as our impacts on the nitrogen cycle, loss of biodiversity and ocean acidification. Thus adaptation must not only go beyond 2°C of global warming but also beyond climate change altogether

In the panel discussion moderated by Andrew Revkin (who struggled to master the hand-held devices that he so admires), Professor Oran Young of University of California, Santa Barbara, seemed to be reaching for something similar:

it seems to me that the signature problems of the Anthropocene – climate change, the loss of biological diversity – have a number of characteristics that make them different and difficult to address in terms of our familiar governance structures. These issues are characterised by extreme connectivity – teasing these problems apart, dealing with them piecemeal doesn’t seem to work

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9.10am: False hopes! David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, has been detained at an “emergency cabinet meeting.” There’s a worryingly long list of potential reasons for the summons – wealthy Party donors angry at their exposure, the North Sea gas flare, the tanker drivers’ strike, Argentina invades….

Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, has moved up the agenda, but it’s a set piece speech.

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9.45am: Despite evident sleep deprivation, co-chair Mark Stafford Smith has introduced the conference “state of the planet” declaration.

Wisely, it highlights how science has advanced in the last ten years. Simply stating that the earth system is at risk will trigger accusations of replaying the old 1992 Earth Summit tape.

The three broad areas of scientific advance highlighted in the document are:

1. the concept of the Anthropocene which puts humans unequivocally in the driving seat – and therefore accountable for stewardship of planetary boundaries

2. the incredible interconnectedness of earth systems both with themselves and with social and economic dimensions. Dealing with things one at a time is no longer coherent.

3. the insight brought by social science into the limitations of governance to deal with self-evident needs such as measurement of progress

The most important responses suggested in relation to each of these advances all relate to global governance. This is the strongest message of this conference…

…it’s governance, governance and more governance

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10.00am: We’ve been introduced to a new scientific term which I suspect will become commonplace by Rio+40.

The nitrogen footprint of the conference has been reduced by 30% through actions taken by the organisers to lower the meat content of the catering facilities and to promote waste efficiency by the use of food bags.

This was announced by Sybil Seitzinger, Executive Director, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, in her summary of the proceedings of the last four days.

Will Steffen said on the first day that the nitrogen cycle has been even more disturbed than the carbon cycle. I’m keen to add a guide on this topic to our range of OneWorld Guides – but we’ll need more material from the science community to help us to understand what’s happening with nitrogen.

There’s one small snag with the conference’s revolutionary catering policy that I feel obliged to report. Delegates paid £42 for the official dinner last night and Twitter was humming with dissatisfied customers. Are there fish and chip shops in Docklands?

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10.30am: Johan Rockström, head of the Stockholm Environment Institute and leading light in the concept of planetary boundaries, has inadvertently kept us thinking about nitrogen.

He started his talk by posting a big slide title:

3 – 6 – 9

My immediate thought was of a bag of fertiliser which uses this format to indicate its content of nitrogen, potassium and phosphor (I think).

But it turned out to be a numerical mnemonic to remind scientists to take responsibility for:

3 degrees of temperature rise
6th potential mass extinction
9 billion people

Good to see that Professor Rockström may have read my post about the third degree at breakfast this morning.

Now he’s talking about the Future Earth initiative which hooks up different research networks to improve the relevance of their work. Without understanding these inner workings of the science community, it sounds like a bold initiative, on a scale that is currently inconceivable within the human rights and development community.

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11.10am: We’ve had a blinding succession of intense and convincing statements by conference speakers, including the impressive Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme.

Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Coordinator of Rio+20 and former Minister for Energy and Environment of Barbados, has arrived hotfoot from the Intersessional negotiations on the Rio+20 outcome text that concluded in New York on Tuesday. She spoke of four recommendations in the updated draft that relate to the interests of this conference:

*the UN should appoint a chief scientist

*a set of Sustainable Development Goals should incorporate the environmental issues

*there should be a science-based high level panel reporting to the Secretary General on sustainable development

* we need a new mechanism to report on the state of the planet

What she didn’t mention is that the revised draft is rumoured to have expanded to 150 pages. Much of what is now in there – maybe even the reference to planetary boundaries – will disappear before we arrive at Rio.

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11.55am: UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, delivered one of his terse video messages to the conference earlier this morning. I sense that some thought had gone into it – others I’ve seen tend to be robotic pleasantries.

How’s this for a conversation-stopper:

Scientific advice is sometimes unclear or even contradictory.

Scientists themselves often work in silos, ignoring broader factors.

Maybe that’s just laying the ground for the mysterious promise that “I am also ready to work with the scientific community on the launch of a large-scale scientific initiative.”

I trust that refers to the Future Earth programme and not to the opening line of a sinister work of science fiction that the SG is planning in his retirement.

Also positive is Ban’s reference to the recommendations of his High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. These were particularly sympathetic to the interests of promoting science in the policy arena.

Not too bad for just 250 words.

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12.30pm: Speaker David Norgaard has provoked spontaneous applause during his speech, a rare achievement at this event.

More heartening still from a OneWorld perspective was that the sections provoking this reaction addressed the question of justice for poorer countries. He spoke of the “massive ecological debt” that the industrialised world has incurred.

“We have gained our position by hurting others,” said the Professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California.

Such realities should be acknowledged “to get the science-society relationship we need to get through this.”

More applause for his comment about the role of markets.

we need to make the economy work for us. The invisible hand (of the market) needs to be told where to go. Once it’s told where to go the invisible hand will work very well – and so it’s not a critique of markets, it’s a critique of markets that tell us how we live rather than setting markets up to help us live the way we want to live
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1.30pm: Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, is being generous with her time and willingness to report back from the recent talks in New York. She’s just done a session on the daily conference broadcast with Julian Rush. Asked whether decision-makers are ready to act, she said:

the level of dialogue is broadening, because all over the world people have marched in relation to current conditions, because people have occupied Wall Street and other locations, because there has been an Arab Spring. And all of it has been saying: let us have sustainable development – we want development but we want it to be sustainable; we want a larger share in democracy and how we are governed.

Elizabeth Thompson also mentioned that the three days of debate taking place immediately before the formal Rio+20 summit will be transmitted online. This public audience will be invited to vote on ideas to put to the policymakers.

I’ve been curious about these highly professional “Daily Planet” broadcasts. Since the Bali climate conference in 2007, my colleagues at OneWorld TV have covered similar events all over the world, with a particular focus on climate change. Our style has been very informal, often crammed into a noisy area surrounded by other NGOs.

Both approaches have their advantages. The problem with hiring a familiar voice is the associations it brings, which may distract from the business in hand.

Julian Rush has the ruthless discipline of the professional broadcaster but has been unable to shake off the over-stressed intonation of reportage. He introduces top scientists as though he is tramping across a muddy field to examine the latest in organic beef.

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3.50pm: I’ve had a closer look at the State of the Planet Declaration that represents the outcome of the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference.

My earlier post picked out the three observations on the advance of science since 1992. These strike me as the relevant core of any communication from a science-based conference to the Rio+20 summit.

There was one other point in the oral presentation which caught my attention. This was what co-chair Mark Stafford Smith said:

the implication of this Anthropocene really is that we have to go beyond thinking about sustainable development, beyond even universal sustainable development, because even if every country was developing sustainably we could still fail to meet our real need which is global sustainability. So, that has implications for Rio which we touch on in the document, for example that the proposed Sustainable Development Goals really do need to try and think about that in a way which adds together to global sustainability and flows on through all levels of governance to do that

This is a mouthful but potentially significant because it goes against the contemporary approach of UN agreements. These focus strongly on creating a template for national plans which aspire to add up to the required result – whether it’s greenhouse gas emissions or HIV prevention.

The possibility that a higher UN power will intervene to demand something extra from national governments, for the sake of the whole, is a big step.

This implication doesn’t exactly hit you between the eyes in the published Declaration. It says:

A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability.

I’m not sure that the average speed-reader will quite get the point.

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4.25pm: This is supposed to be a live blog and I still haven’t said anything about the minister’s speech which was delivered several hours ago.

Believe me, I’ve tried. But the effort has reminded me of one of those large parcels full of crumpled bits of newspaper which you mistakenly imagine are protecting something precious and exciting.

David Willetts, UK minister for universities and science, informed us that the British have much to offer in the field of metrology.

Before I’d worked out whether he might have meant meteorology or mineralogy, he was folding his papers. Nisha Pillai made her customary approach, loaded with provocative questions, but Willetts was taking no chances and marched off.

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5.05pm: I’m a rather reluctant and incompetent exponent of the dark arts of social media and communications devices.

Every plenary session of this conference has left me confused. The moderator waltzes about armed with an iPad. That much I understand. How else could the questions arriving through the ether be filtered and read out (although Andrew Revkin bungled it).

But what’s this carried in the other hand? A clip-board of the sort that used to be favoured by teachers on sports day.

Oliver Morton sported a natty blue model. Revkin (what a bad day) preferred a reporter’s notebook, its pages so frayed that I wondered if this could be the same man who composes Dot Earth.

It was soon apparent that the bulldog clip secures the reference data – the names and cvs of the participants, the lunch venues and so on. Why can’t this be stored on the iPad and leave a hand free for shoving off those anti-Shell protesters?

At one point, Nisha Pillai found herself at one end of the platform with her precious clip-board languishing on a table at the other end.

With barely a pause, she introduced Professor Bina Agarwal from memory, omitting nothing from the formidable array of Bina’s credentials. It was a tour-de-force, unless of course the information was there somewhere on that eponymous tablet.

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7.40pm: When the on-demand conference video recordings become available, I strongly recommend this morning’s panel discussion moderated by Oliver Morton. Indeed, I would recommend it to communications students who seek out the secrets of success in such things.

The circumstances were not propitious. The panel came at the end of a long morning of particularly intense material, typical of the final day of an event. The minister from the Republic of Congo did not show. And I hope the participants will forgive me for suggesting that, with the exception of Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN, their names lacked the familiarity of the heavyweight panel discussion earlier in the morning.

Why was it that this apparent excuse to slip away for an early lunch turned into a gripping debate?

Some will observe that four of the five panellists were women, certainly a unique bias in this event. That’s pretty irrelevant in this context, I feel.

Others will point to a flawless contribution from Oliver Morton. He kept still without flapping his arms about, he commanded attention without raising his voice, involved the audience and didn’t react to a put-down by a forceful female. The session closed with his apt quote from an obscure French philosopher.

I’ve no credentials in this field but was more struck by the vividly appropriate experiences and concepts chosen to illustrate the arguments. Powerpoint has so dimmed our ability to hold an audience spontaneously.

But here we heard about taking a bath in 5 litres of water, students self-financing and governing the sustainability of their campus, a call to pull down the so-called pillars of sustainable development and a lament at our failure to regulate at the extremes of wealth and poverty.

Let’s hope for a prolonged absence of environmental crises within Europe so that the Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor is allowed out and about. Anne Glover is surely a rising star in the thinly populated field of science communication.

There was more distillation of the essence of this event – the troubling interfaces of science/policy/governance/economics/business – than in the official end-of-conference declaration.

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9.20pm: I hope that I will be forgiven for turning to the subject of education for this final post on the last day of Planet Under Pressure 2012.

When not distracted by science conferences, I’m responsible for producing OneWorld Guides which is one half of the educational content of oneworld.net. The other half is Tiki the Penguin, edited by Bry Lynas.

Although we’re primarily concerned with global poverty and injustice, our material does overlap with science – there are Guides on Biodiversity and Ocean Acidification, while Tiki’s thoughts on pollution have been the most visited section of oneworld.net for years.

OneWorld certainly backs the call for greater worldwide support for science education in the context of sustainable development that features in the closing State of the Planet declaration.

The conference organisers could usefully exploit social media with a two minute edit from Richard Black’s panel discussion on Tuesday.

Colleen Vogel, a South African consultant who works in schools, said:

I don’t think we need to only be talking to the policymakers and the big thinkers. I think we should be talking to the small people too – it’s amazing what the young have to say and to offer….we need to be moving the environmental education debate forward because it is really really urgent

That cued in a US doctoral student on the panel. The conference could not have commissioned a better script than Pamela Collins delivered:

I was in a school system that did have an environmental education component….I found it very very impactful – I learned that if the water is dirty, the fish can’t live there. This is the sort of thing that needs to be communicated; that’s what really resonates with young minds and it sticks with people as they grow up. That’s why I chose a career path in environmental research because of the impact the teachers had on me when I was about ten years old

This was quite an eye-opener for those of us who perceive the US school science curriculum as a stroll in the Garden of Eden.

A couple of days later I spotted an excellent article by Pamela, counterpointing her experience of jogging in London’s Docklands with the artificial bubble of the conference centre.

The end-of-conference prize was a shoo-in.
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this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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