By Fábio de Castro
Agência FAPESP – The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20) rallied the scientific community and was the stage for discussions revealing unparalleled advances in knowledge of the planet’s limits—an indispensable concept in determining an agenda dedicated to global sustainability.
However, none of this was reflected in the conference’s final document, entitled “The Future We Want,” in which even the word “science” was cut from the only section in which it was featured, say scientists who met at the 2nd BIOTA-BIOEN co-workshop—“Climate Change: The Future We Don’t Want — a reflection on RIO+20", on August 23.
The event, held at FAPESP headquarters, brought together researchers involved in FAPESP’s three large programs on environment-related issues: biodiversity (BIOTA-FAPESP), bioenergy (BIOEN) and global climate change (PFPMCG). The workshop’s focus was to perform a critical analysis of RIO+20’s results, especially in terms of the prospects for the scientific community to participate in international discussions in coming years.
According to BIOTA-FAPESP coordinator Carlos Alfredo Joly, the Brazilian scientific community worked intensively during RIO+20 and arrived at the conference prepared to provide subsidies capable of influencing the agenda for the implementation of sustainable development.
“None of this was reflected in the final declaration. In the end, the document is generic and determines neither goals nor deadlines, nor does it establish an agenda for transitioning to a greener or more sustainable economy,” Joly told Agência FAPESP.
The scientists’ greatest hope for concrete results from the conference, says Joly, was that the final text would recognize, in its introduction, the concept of planetary limits proposed in 2009 by Johan Rockström of Stockholm University. The expectation, however, was not met.
“We have had huge leaps in knowledge since 1992 in terms of the planet’s limits, and Rockström’s work is already a classic. Highlighting this in the final text could lead to a paradigm shift that would define a new trajectory for the planet. But this wasn’t done,” he said.
Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, participated in the workshop via videoconference and presented a lecture called “Planetary Boundaries Are Valuable for Policy.”
The fact that scientific knowledge is not reflected in the document, however, should not discourage the scientific community working in the environmental field, said Joly. “For those of us who work with biodiversity, the priority now becomes once again the discussion on a veto of the change to the forest code, a question that is still open.”
According to Joly, the topic of biodiversity received very little attention in the final RIO+20 document, even though it is one of the areas in which safe planetary limits have already been exceeded.
“Nearly all the references to an agenda for biodiversity were cut from the text. The zero document, which was the starting point for the declaration, had six paragraphs on marine biodiversity, including goals and an agenda, for example. In the final text, there are 19 paragraphs, but they establish neither goals nor an agenda,” Joly pointed out.
Paulo Artaxo, a member of the PFPMCG board, noted that there were very few references to climate change issues. “The final text of RIO+20 has 53 pages divided into 283 topics. Of this total, only three topics refer to the climate question. To give you an example, there are six topics on gender equality and ten on chemical waste—which are important topics, but they don’t involve the same scale and urgency as the climate problem,” he said.
Aside from being few in number, Artaxo added, the content of the references to the climate question is quite vague. “The text limits itself to affirming that climate change is among the greatest challenges of our time and that the topic generates worry”.
However, for the researcher it would be naïve to believe that the conference could bring immediate solutions to the question of global sustainability. The opportunity lost at the conference was to help accelerate the necessary decisions. Artaxo explained, “The problem is enormous and involves the entire productive system that turns the economy and politics of our entire planet. A question of this size can’t be resolved in a single meeting, or even in a decade. It will take at least another ten years to equate. Our problem is that we don’t have that much time.”
Artaxo said that at RIO+20 it became evident that the world feels the lack of leadership to address the global climate question. “We have no entities able to implement global policy with significant impact on the planet’s economy to take on the climate challenge. If it’s difficult to reduce CO2 emissions, we can try to reduce methane and ozone emissions, for example. But this requires a governing system that RIO+20 clearly showed doesn’t exist.”
Fábio Feldman of the Paulista Forum on Climate Change pointed out that lack of leadership may have compromised the results of RIO+20. He said that RIO92 (or ECO-92) produced more successful results because at the time the Brazilian interlocutor with the chiefs of state was physicist José Goldemberg.
“If we were to ask the Brazilian diplomats, they will say that RIO+20 was a huge success because to them, the important thing was to arrive at a final document, even if it was innocuous. The fact that Professor Goldemberg isn’t a diplomat was an important factor in the successes at ECO-92,” he said.
Felman did affirm that, despite everything, and aside from the high-level meeting, RIO+20 addressed important initiatives such as active participation of the business sector and mobilization of the scientific community to create the Future of Earth program.
Alice Abreu, International Council for Science (ICSU) coordinator of the RIO+20 Initiative, listed the activities of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, the main scientific event held in parallel with the conference. “There were over 1,000 participants in the event, aside from another thousand that followed it online,” she said. “There were 11 thematic sessions, where 110 scientists from 75 nations discussed topics central to sustainable development. There were another 24 parallel events that brought together some 100 speakers. We had two sessions of science policy, and the closing session was a high-level dialog between representatives of science and politics.”
The forum was the stage for the kick-off of Future Earth, an international interdisciplinary research initiative on the earth system for global sustainability. “The objective is to provide, in the next ten years, the knowledge necessary for societies to be able to take on the risks of environmental change and develop appropriate transitions to global sustainability,” she said.
According to Abreu, in addition to the concrete initiative of the Future Earth program, debates between the scientists participating in the forum generated important recommendations for the world agenda on global sustainability. “Two recommendations were central: more collaboration between natural scientists and social scientists—a topic debated in nearly all the sessions—and more integrated scientific policy with other players so as to establish a new agreement between science and society,” she noted.