Scientists warn that sustainable development is not enough

The global science profession is calling on nation states to accept new responsibilities for planetary stewardship that are more demanding than envisaged by the landmark UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) coming up in June.

“We have to go beyond thinking about sustainable development because even if every country was developing sustainably we could still fail to meet our real need which is global sustainability,” said Dr Mark Stafford Smith, climate specialist at Australia’s national science agency and co-chair of the 4-day Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference that concluded in London last Thursday.

The idea that “global sustainability” is more important than “sustainable development” emerges strongly from the end-of-conference declaration, titled The State of the Planet.

The distinction stems from advances in earth science over the last decade. Researchers are alarmed at the proximity of planetary boundaries where the risk of abrupt and rapid environmental change becomes real. The tolerance threshold for the loss of biodiversity is just one of nine potential threats being studied.

Sustainable development is perceived by the science community as too weak, both conceptually and in its political negligence, to represent an adequate response to these risks.

For this reason, the conference declaration qualifies its support for current UN proposals for new sustainable development goals. These must add up to “goals for global sustainability” if the planet is to be protected for future generations.

This is exactly the approach that has failed in UN climate change negotiations. Individual countries have insisted on making voluntary pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, these pledges do not remotely add up to the global reduction that scientists advise is necessary to stabilise the climate.

The conference declaration may also come as a surprise to government and non-governmental negotiators currently engaged in preparing an agreement for world leaders to consider at Rio+20. The first draft of a potential outcome, known as The Future We Want, contains not a single reference to “global sustainability.”

It is inconceivable that developing countries would agree to goals for global sustainability without comparable goals to eradicate global poverty.

Acknowledgement in the State of the Planet declaration that “eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal role(s) in the transition towards planetary stewardship,” seems unlikely to meet expectations of parity between development and sustainability.

Nevertheless, the conference declaration has been endorsed for input to the Rio+20 negotiating process by Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, and Phil Bloomer, Director of Campaigns and Policy, Oxfam GB. The remaining sixteen “leading figures” on the board of patrons represent neither developing countries nor international development NGOs.

The outcome of the London event also reflects the strong dissatisfaction of scientists with the current segmented structure of international governance of environmental risks.

In a conference panel discussion, Professor Oran Young of University of California, Santa Barbara, said: “climate change and the loss of biological diversity are characterised by extreme connectivity….. dealing with them piecemeal doesn’t seem to work.”

The earth science community prefers to describe its activities as “global change research.” The State of the Planet declaration makes no more than passing reference to climate change, despite its warning that planetary threats are “creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.”

By contrast, development and poverty campaigners like to see the texts of international agreements acknowledging any existing political commitments to each and every interested party, from gender to indigenous rights.

Scientists are bound to be disappointed with the latest negotiations on the draft outcome text for Rio+20 which, by coincidence, were also in full swing last week. The third intersessional meeting of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was held in New York.

According to the reporting service of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, the negotiating group consisting of 77 developing countries plus China insisted that “member states are primarily responsible for driving their own sustainable development agenda” and that “the Sustainable Development Goals shall be voluntary in nature.”

It also emerged that the draft of the outcome document had increased from 19 to over 200 pages. Most of the additional content was contributed by disparate social and environmental interests.

These developments are not exactly what the science doctors ordered.

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this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News

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