Anxious wait for scientists on Rio+20 talks

ICSU wants the draft text to recognise limits to the use of the Earth's resources Copyright: Greenpeace/Thomas Kummerov

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Science campaigners find out today whether they have managed to get more attention paid to science and technology in negotiations leading up to the Rio+20 summit later this year (20-23 June).                 

National delegations begin informal discussions in New York today (19–23 March) on the text that will form the outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

The international science and technology community has been pushing hard to get agreements on matters it regards as crucial to a successful outcome at the meeting in Brazil in June, which at least 118 heads of state and government have already pledged to attend.

Rio+20 seeks to find a path to sustainable development by developing a green economy, and a conducive institutional framework.

'Planetary boundaries' is an idea that was showcased by Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in Nature in 2009, and refers to limits to the use of nine of the Earth's resources, ranging from activities that generate carbon dioxide to land use, the loading of atmosphere with aerosols and the use of oceans.Top of the science community's campaign list is the injection of a sense of urgency about environmental and developmental problems into the text, and an acknowledgement that there are 'planetary boundaries' — an idea that has been gathering momentum in many quarters but is not contained in the current draft.

Rockström has proposed a numerical maximum for each of these, beyond which the system may be in danger of collapsing, putting human communities at risk.

"Planetary boundaries puts in this idea that the planet has limitations and we can't go on using its resources indefinitely," said Peter Bates, science officer at the International Council for Science (ICSU) — which, together with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, has been running the science and technology Major Group, which has been a formal part of discussions.

"We are hoping to get it into the opening paragraph. The draft is quite weak on the urgency."

But the idea is controversial among scientists, some of whom have questioned the rigour of the underlying data and the basis for the figures that have been suggested for each 'boundary'.

"It's a compelling idea, I would support the concept," said David Molden, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal, and former head of the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka.

"But there is a danger, with some boundaries, of putting one figure on their use. It's not like those numbers have been around for a long time and debated; it's a new idea.

"For example you can extract less water, if you manage it poorly, than you can if you manage it well so the boundary is a not a strict, 'one number' kind of boundary."

The Major Group is also pushing for independent science advisory bodies for the UN, regional and national governments; and for a global mechanism for coordinating interdisciplinary and international science on sustainable development.

"People feel that science is functioning. But with the correct mechanisms in place they could get more out of the science," Bates told SciDev.Net.

The group also wants to see national governments agree to spend more on international sustainable development research.

And it wants Rio+20 to agree to develop scientifically sound, integrated indicators which go beyond GDP (gross domestic product) — to include environmental and social dimensions, and possibly the creation of a global task force to move this forward.  

The first draft of the agreement — the 'zero draft', issued in January — has attracted widespread criticism for being too mild, although the UN has responded by saying it was deliberately written as a template on which further language could be built.

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