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  • Scientists scrutinise first draft of Rio+20 agreement

[LONDON] The starting document for negotiations ahead of the Rio+20 summit ― the 'zero draft' ― contains more references to science than was expected by the scientific community, but still falls short on the specifics and avoids mentioning some critical, science-related issues.

The document was published this week (10 January) and will form the basis for negotiations between governments leading up to the signing of the non-binding document at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil later this year (20–22 June).

The section on science and technology (S&T) recognises the importance of S&T and innovation in promoting sustainable development, and stresses the need for "effective mechanisms, enhanced means, appropriate enabling environments, and the removal of obstacles to the scaling up of the development and transfer of technology to developing countries". It proposes to strengthen international cooperation to ease "investment and technology transfer, development and diffusion".

The draft also calls for "the scientific basis for decision-making to be strengthened across the UN system and recognise that the interface between science and policymaking should be enhanced".It also proposes that governments should "facilitate international collaborative research on green technologies involving developing countries"; "support developing countries' scientists and engineers, and scientific and engineering institutions; and foster their efforts to develop green local technologies and use traditional knowledge", as well as encourage the creation of centres of research and development (R&D) excellence.

This recognition that government actions must be underpinned by research — and that one needs science first to enable policy action — is crucial, according to Peter Bates, science officer at the International Council for Science (ICSU), which is co-organising partner for the 'Scientific and Technological Community Major Group', together with the World Federation of Engineering Organizations.

The draft encourages specific research, such as "scientific studies and initiatives aimed at raising wider awareness of the economic benefits of sustainable land management policies that achieve healthy and productive land and soil" and calls for "public-private partnerships aiming to enhance capacity and technology for environmentally sound waste management".

Bates said that, from the S&T point of view, ICSU was "pretty pleased" with the document.

"The main things we've been pushing for are all in there. They could be strengthened in many ways but, overall, there are more mentions of [S&T] than we expected."

"We would like to push for broader funding mechanisms for general research into sustainable development, not just R&D for green technologies ― an international mechanism or a commitment to provide consistent funding."  

Bates said there was still scope to push for more science in future drafts, as negotiators do not find science as threatening as other issues to their other interests.

"The only thing that would be threatening to them is if you really to start to ask for more money. But, in general, the idea of technology transfer, increased capacity for development and these kinds of things are not particularly threatening so I would hope they would get through OK."

One conspicuous absence is any mention of emerging new technologies, such as synthetic biology or geoengineering, and their regulation, topics that non-governmental groups wanted included.

Farooq Ullah, head of policy and advocacy at Stakeholder Forum, a civil society pressure group, said: "There needs to be some sort of control, even potentially a global convention on control of new and emerging technologies".

"These are potentially very, very powerful solutions in terms of giving us the ability to address some of the key problems of the age [such as global warming or energy supply], but, if used in a wrong way, or with unforeseen consequences, they can cause their own problems."

The zero draft suggests that governments should either form a sustainable development council, or improve the work of the current Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). It fails to mention an intergovernmental panel on science that would help the council make decisions.

This panel, known as the 'Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Development’ would have tried to bring fragmented scientific knowledge under one roof, to help the proposed council. It had been proposed by Indonesia, the Stakeholder Forum, the Major Group for Children and Youth, and other bodies. 

Another major limitation of the document is its focus on green economic growth without discussion of the politically sensitive concept of the natural limits of the planet, according to Ullah. "This is a key concept in sustainable development, for it not to be explicitly mentioned is to me a dangerous oversight."

Link to full zero draft

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20

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