Rio + 20 ‘must succeed’: scientists can help make sure it does

The final day of the Planet under Pressure conference finished with a call for scientists to engage with the Rio +20 summit and beyond, defining through science the economic, social and environmental consequences of policy decisions. Interdisciplinary research, robust and comprehensive science is needed to forecast more accurately the intensity and consequences of change at multiple scales, along with assessing the consequences of potential solutions. These were the words of Dr Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director General, and Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, of UNESCO. Dr Watson-Wright reflected in these closing remarks many of the issues and suggestions that arose in discussion at the plenary and parallel sessions during the day.

The talks and sessions on Thursday focused on the way ahead to Rio + 20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, following discussions in previous days examining the challenges facing the planet and the innovative solutions that might exist to tackle these. A significant theme to emerge was the need for better links between science and policy, along with the need for integrated, interdisciplinary research to tackle interconnected problems. On at least two occassions, the concept of the economic, environmental and social elements within sustainable development being characterised as ‘pillars’, as is the norm, was challenged, as this separated these factors conceptually, when in fact they are highly connected to one another. There were also calls throughout the day for new partnerships between science, policy, industry and business, along with the need for social and natural scientists to collaborate with one another.

Addressing the conference by video link, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Rio +20 as a major opportunity to develop the science-policy interface. This echoed comments at the conference earlier in the week by Yvo de Boer, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, who called for greater dialologue between science, policy and the media and the need to find new platforms to facilitate these interactions.

Johan Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Centre, introduced the audience to Future Earth, of which he is co-chair and which he described as an ‘Apollo-type global endeavour’. Future Earth is envisaged as a ‘global platform for collaboration on Earth-system research for global sustainability’, a 10 – year programme that brings together bodies such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the major funders of environmental research globally (the Belmont Forum). Future Earth will be launched at the Rio summit in June, with a new governance structure in place from January 2013. A possible outcome from Future Earth could be, Professor Rockström said, identification of the most pressing questions (and hopefully, solutions to these) facing humanity on global environmental challenges. The biggest intellectual contribution that Future Earth could make, Professor Rockström said, was in taking a bold step to integrate natural and social sciences in understanding these challenges.

There were calls from Professor Anne Glover, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government and now Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission, for better regulation of financial markets, as the real drivers of policy decisions. Professor Glover said that society spends a great deal of money on funding research into climate change, for example, which then delivers evidence on the likely impacts of environmental change, with limited uncertaintly. Policy-makers looking at this evidence can see clearly that action to tackle climate change is needed but ‘markets are not moral’; markets instead see in melting permafrost and areas of drought opportunities for the exploitation of new resources and the opening up of new commercial opportunities. Economists, social scientists and political scientists need to consider how to develop creative models for regulation, to create a level playing field for business to allow them to behave sustainably. Without this, Professor Glover said, our investment in scientific evidence is wasted.

One of the most interesting discussions attended by the Policy Team focused on the concept of ‘planetary boundaries’. There have been calls for the Sustainable Development Goals, expected as an ouput from the Rio +20 meeting, to incoporate the concept of ‘planetary boundaries’, or environmental limits to growth. A speaker from Oxfam highlighted the need to consider ‘social boundaries’ alongside the environment, making the important point that a socially, as well as an environmentally just space for humanity to occupy was required as an outcome of Rio. Again, there were calls for economics to be reformed fundamentally if planetary, and social, boundaries are to be respected, with discussion of new methods of measuring social progress and growth ‘beyond GDP’. Scientists, the panellists stated, should engage with sustainable development policies to make sure that these have scientific integrity.

A ‘state of the planet declaration’ was launched at the conference, representing a summary of the major themes to have emerged over the four days and the science community’s submission to the Rio + 20 meeting. This statement, which will be refined further over the next three months, emphasises the need for greater interconnectedness between disciplines, the need for an ‘improved contract’ between science and society and a ‘global innovation system’ to support the generation of solutions. Overall, the message of the declaration and of the meeting was that the science community has a responsibility and a duty to reach out beyond its borders to other disciplines, to policy-makers and society at large to convince of the scale of the challenge and the need for changes in economics, policy and society, at local, regional and global scales, to address these.