Rio+20 zero draft accepts ‘planetary boundaries’

The concept of planetary boundaries has been incorporated into the latest version of the Rio+20 'zero draft' Copyright: Flickr/Lawrence OP

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[LONDON] The latest draft of the so-called 'zero draft' document, which will be presented to heads of government at the Rio+20 Summit in June, has been amended to include an acknowledgement that there are scientifically assessed 'planetary boundaries' which, if overstepped, could result in irreversible damage to the Earth's systems.

The draft is being prepared by national delegates to the United Nations, and will ultimately be presented to heads of government at the Summit for their endorsement.

The idea of planetary boundaries, referring to the load-bearing limits on the Earth's systems, was not in the original document drawn up by the United Nations, but was included in a European Union submission to talks last week (March 19-23) in New York.

Earlier this month, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon also backed the idea as he presented the report of his High Level Panel on Global Sustainability to an informal plenary of the UN General Assembly on March 17, just before the latest Rio+20 negotiating session began.t Rio+20

"The panel's vision is to eradicate poverty and reduce inequality, to make growth inclusive and production and consumption more sustainable, while combating climate change and respecting a range of other planetary boundaries," Ban told the General Assembly.

It has now been added to the document known as the 'zero draft' of the outcome of Rio+20. Scientists will discuss the issue on the final day of the Planet Under Pressure Conference, which ends in London tomorrow.

 "Planetary boundaries in terms of the carrying capacity of the Earth and the need for sustainability, has now been included," confirmed Gisbert Glaser, senior advisor at the International Council for Science, Paris, who was at the New York meeting last week.

While its inclusion in the zero draft has been welcomed as a breakthrough for a more science-based approach to environmental issues, several delegates at the UN in New York told Scidev.Net that the European proposal did not go far enough to win developing country approval. In particular, it failed to include social aspects and implications of the planetary boundaries concept – including the management of 'tipping' points.

"Developing countries won't accept this unless the social side is added in," said one Asian delegate.

Frank Biermann, chair of the Earth Systems Governance Project, believes the societal aspect of tipping points and the way they are managed is important. "Societies must change course to steer away from critical tipping points," he told Scidev.Net  recently.

One EU delegate also pointed to the difficulty of measuring the societal dimensions of planetary boundaries.

 "No one has really done that for social aspects, in terms of tipping points," agreed ICSU's Glaser "but we are still happy that it is in there now, in the draft."

According to an Asian country delegate, the acceptance of planetary boundaries within the zero draft strengthens the need for more effective coordination between scientists and policymakers on responding to and managing individual boundaries, which cover issues such asbiodiversity and climate.

"Developing effective policy based on the scientific work is still a major challenge," he said. This was particularly because advances in science might mean that individual boundaries and their tipping points might change over time, requiring flexibility from policymakers.

The inclusion of additional submissions – such as the case for planetary boundaries has made the original zero draft expand from an original 19 pages to around 150 pages. However Glaser says it will be refined into a far more condensed final document.

"There are quite a number of new additions that strengthen the need for science-based actions and a science-policy interface," he said, adding that the main task of the drafting group between now and the next negotiating session at the end of April will be to streamline the many additions to the text, "and find language acceptable to all."

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