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Climate challenges need a joint response at Rio+20

Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and executive director, UN Environment Programme

Next year’s 20th anniversary summit is a timely opportunity for the world to consider a central environment policy framework. The G20 members must show leadership and willingness if sustainable development is to be a realistic prospect

From "The G20 Cannes Summit 2011: A New Way Forward," edited by John Kirton and Madeline Koch,
published by Newsdesk Media Group and the G20 Research Group, 2011
To download a low-resolution pdf, click here.

The G20 Cannes Summit comes seven months before Rio+20, in Brazil in June 2012. Almost 20 years ago – at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio – world leaders, notably the then French president François Mitterrand, laid the foundations for sustainable development, including three landmark treaties on biodiversity, climate change and desertification.

The question is, can next year’s United Nations conference on sustainable development match – and indeed surpass – the Earth Summit while transforming the promises of a previous generation of leaders into a fully implemented programme of sustainable development?

One thing is clear, Rio+20 is going to take place at a time when there is a consensus on the need to rethink the global economy and to re-envision the instruments that are required in order to respond to persisting issues and to address new ones.

The conference also offers an opportunity to reform, retool and refocus the global institutions inherited from the last century in order to ensure that they reflect the needs, geopolitics and demands of the current one.

Much of the debate among G20 members will focus on the theme of a green economy, in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Another key theme at Rio+20 will be that of an institutional framework in the context of sustainable development – not least as a result of France’s initiatives to reform international environmental governance.

A question of timing

Why is the time particularly appropriate for this issue? In 2012, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will be 40 years old.

Since the 1972 Stockholm Conference – and as a result of the Earth Summit – more than 500 multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have been negotiated. These cover such diverse topics as the trade in endangered species, hazardous waste and protecting the ozone layer to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Environmental issues are now incorporated into the work of more than 40 international organisations.

But there is another side to these success stories. Those MEAs have become an administrative burden for many developing countries, stretching limited financial and human resources. From 1992 to 2007, 540 meetings were held for 18 major MEAs, at which 5,084 decisions were taken.

There is also much duplication of effort and fragmentation of purpose. By dealing with symptom upon symptom, challenges appear to have been addressed whereas, in fact, root causes and root solutions have been masked. This approach has also stifled the prospect of a more synergistic and effective approach.

Today’s global population of nearly seven billion will surpass the nine billion mark by 2050. Many scientists estimate that a global temperature rise of 4°C by mid-century may occur as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions – double what many experts regard as the acceptable threshold to prevent damage from climate change.

According to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Report, an initiative hosted by UNEP, loss of ecosystem services from forests alone may exceed $4 trillion a year. Also, resource consumption may cause current rates to triple by 2050 – an unsustainable level by any account.

The current management regime is thus failing this generation’s search for sustainable development and will certainly short-change the next, unless a more effective, stronger, coherent, focused governance system can be established.

The Rio+20 theme of an institutional framework for sustainable development rests on three pillars: international environmental governance, and economic and social elements. However, many believe that the environmental side remains the weakest pillar of the edifice as it stands.

Deciding on a new organisation

The key question is not just whether a global organisation for the environment is needed, but how it would be configured and what it might do that would prove to be transformative. Such an organisation would require the authority to allow environment ministers to achieve some parity and equity with their economic and social counterparts. UNEP’s governing council meets annually, but the decisions taken by environment ministers are referred to the UN General Assembly in New York, where they can be agreed upon or dismissed.

A body with the kind of decision-making authority of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – or a specialised agency such as the World Health Organization – could remedy this disconnect between ambition and reality.

An anchor institution could provide authoritative policy guidance to MEAs in order to address fragmentation and build a more strategic direction to bring together all the distinct parts of the current environment corpus. Such a strengthened body could also confront the issue of financing. Currently decisions on allocating funds for the environment are often taken in parallel forums, such as the Global Environment Facility.

Meanwhile, the lack of a central and anchoring policy framework leads to increased costs, inefficient targeting of scarce financial resources and curtailed consequences for achieving sustainability. Moreover, the world invests significant time, skill and capacity in negotiating treaties, targets and timetables but far less in actually implementing them. Any new structure must therefore address this gap by having a dedicated implementation arm to financially support and build the capacity of developing countries to meet their commitments regionally and nationally.

Other important elements include building accountability into environmental agreements and decisions, backed up by peer review and review mechanisms. The African Union, the WTO and the Human Rights Council offer examples of how this could be done.

Building scientific capacity

Finally, sound science underpins sound policymaking, but too often the wealth of scientific knowledge available to governments is unfiltered or unfit for cooperative decision-making. A comprehensive science-policy interface that spans the full range of environmental challenges and sectors and that can build scientific capacity in developing countries is another key link in this forward-looking governance debate.

So, there is near-universal consensus on the need for reform of international environmental governance. But the specific proposal and level of ambition remain subject to debate. Yet some options and elements of how that reform might be shaped have emerged – including perhaps the World Environment Organisation and UNEP.

Nevertheless, despite the growing consensus, there remains some hesitation, both with regard to the green economy agenda and to the question of an international environment organisation. Indeed, some developing economies are concerned that these two directions could be used by developed economies in order to erect ‘green’ barriers to trade.

There is clearly a need to manage any such potential risks and bring clarity rather than suspicion. Rio+20 is an extraordinary moment in international, planetary affairs when the challenges, but also the opportunities, of the new century are becoming ever clearer.

The world knows enough today about what works and what needs to be fixed. Whether the world’s 190-plus nation-states can collectively set aside the politics of suspicion in favour of the politics of shared, supportive and reformative action remains to be seen. However, there are strong indications that many countries are keenly aware of the link between environmental sustainability and economic and social stability. They are equally keenly committed to reforming how the planet is managed in order to achieve transformative and sustainable change.

At the end of the day, any summit needs to craft a deal – with enough for everyone to deem it worthwhile. Political leadership and engagement at the highest level will determine whether Rio can deliver this time around: the G20 members have an important role to play in setting the milestones on the road to Rio in June 2012.

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