Has Rio+20 made a difference to international cooperation on the environment?

Speech at Natur 2103 by Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme

Basel -- Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been asked to reflect on whether the Rio+20 Summit has taken forward international cooperation on the environment and sustainable development.

Perhaps more importantly, to address whether Rio+20 has made any dent, any fundamental difference, to the current unsustainable pathways and sobering scenarios science is increasingly signaling.

And whether Rio+20, in the markedly different geopolitical landscape that defines our world today, has brought fresh perspectives and international understanding on the cultural dimensions underpinning sustainability in the 21st century.

Let me first address the science?the impartial science?that in many ways set the scene for Heads of State and ministers attending the Rio+20 summit last June.

In advance of Rio+20, UNEP launched its Global Environment Outlook 5?the fifth flagship report in a series that began shortly after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

? GEO-5 was produced over three years in a global process that involved more than six hundred experts, who collated and analyzed data from every continent to build up a detailed picture of the world's wellbeing.

It assessed 90 of the most-important environmental goals and objectives agreed over the past 20 to 40 years and found that significant progress had only been made in four.

These are eliminating the production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer, removal of lead from fuel, increasing access to improved water supplies and boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.

? Some progress was shown in 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as National Parks and efforts to reduce deforestation.

? Little or no progress was detected for 24 - including climate change, fish stocks, and desertification and drought.

Further deterioration was posted for eight goals, including the state of the world's coral reefs, while no assessment was made of 14 other goals due to a lack of data.

The report cautioned that if humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur.

The report also drew on a multiplicity of other assessments and studies including those of the International Resource Panel?hosted by UNEP.

The Panel has concluded that the consumption of natural resources will triple by 2050 under current patterns?an unsustainable pathway by any measure.

Above all, GEO-5 illuminated in very concrete ways a world of achievement in terms of treaties aimed at tackling everything from trade in endangered species, climate change and chemicals set against a world of failed implementation.

Yet GEO-5 also expressed another reality?a world awash with inspiring examples of positive environmental change by communities, countries, cities and companies, and many achievements internationally, regionally and nationally.

? A world already rich in successful policy initiatives, including public investment, green accounting, sustainable trade, the establishment of new markets, technological innovation and capacity building.

? Achievements and policies which, if only scaled-up and accelerated, could counter poverty and shift economies into the sustainability space.

The development of GEO-5 and the Rio+20 Summit came also against a backdrop of the fallout from the economic and financial crisis of 2008.

This has also triggered debate about the role of governments in terms of regulation and rule-setting alongside a deep discourse on notions on wealth and genuine human progress versus short term profits and the value of benchmarking economies against one of the crudest of indicators?namely GDP.

The Emergence of the Green Economy Concept

As part of this reflection, discourse and indeed search for a new pathway towards progress, UNEP with many other partners launched and developed the concept and analysis of a Green Economy shift.

It was a journey that triggered some sharply polarized views between more free market-orientated and more state-led economies politically and culturally.

Some came to see the Green Economy as a way of commoditizing nature and environmental services, with some countries in places like Latin America convinced that this was the final straw.

? The handing over lock stock and barrel of the commons and 'Mother Earth' to the bankers, hedge fund managers and others whose failed policies had triggered the economic and financial crisis in the first place.

These were legitimate concerns that needed addressing?a green ribbon around existing economic and developmental directions would be a road to nowhere rather than a route to a better future.

Others embraced the Green Economy as a way of making the economy more environmentally sensitive and environmentalists more economically literate.

UNEP and partners presented their final, main Green Economy report in late 2011?some six months before Rio+20.

? The main report, launched late 2011 in advance of Rio+20, argued that investing two per cent of global GDP into ten key sectors can kick-start a transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient pathway.

The sum, currently amounting to an average of around $1.3 trillion a year and backed by forward-looking national and international policies, would grow the global economy at around the same rate, if not higher, than those forecast under current economic models ? but without rising risks, shocks, scarcities and crises increasingly inherent in the existing, resource-depleting, high-carbon 'brown' economy, said the study.

The findings and conclusions comprehensively challenged the myth of a trade-off between environmental investments and economic growth and instead pointed to a current 'gross misallocation of capital'.

The report emphasized that a Green Economy was not only relevant to more developed economies but could be a key catalyst for growth and poverty eradication in developing ones too?where in some cases close to 90 per cent of the GDP of the poor is linked to nature or natural capital such as forests and freshwaters.

It cited India, where over 80 per cent of the $8 billion National Rural Employment Guarantee Act underwrites at least 100 days of paid work for rural households, invests in water conservation, irrigation and land development.

? This has generated three billion working days-worth of employment, benefiting close to 60 million households.

Ten sectors were covered.

In respect to energy, the Green Economy report estimated that investing about one and a quarter per cent of global GDP each year in energy efficiency and renewable energies could cut global primary energy demand by nine per cent in 2020 and by close to 40 per cent by 2050.

? Employment levels in the energy sector would be one-fifth higher than under a business-as-usual scenario as renewable energies take close to 30 per cent of the share of primary global energy demand by mid-century.

? Savings on capital and fuel costs in power generation would, under a Green Economy scenario, be on average $760 billion a year between 2010 and 2050.

The report made similar cases in areas ranging from waste management to sustainable transport to fisheries.

TEEB?Transforming the Invisibility of Nature into the Wealth Discourse

The Green Economy work was also informed by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)?originally requested by the G8 group of environment ministers and supported by several developing countries.

Indeed its central thrust was that policy makers who factor the planet's multi-trillion dollar ecosystem services into their national and international investment strategies are likely to see far higher rates of return and stronger economic growth in the 21st century.

Some countries, it argued, had already made the link to a limited extent and were glimpsing benefits in terms of jobs, livelihoods and economic returns.

? In Venezuela, investment in the national protected area system is preventing sedimentation that otherwise could reduce farm earnings by around US$3.5 million a year (Pabon-Zamora et al.2008).

? Planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves in Vietnam costs just over US$1 million but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over US$7 million (Tallis et al. 2008).

? One in 40 jobs in Europe are now linked with the environment and ecosystem services ranging from clean tech 'eco-industries' to organic agriculture, sustainable forestry and eco-tourism.

TEEB also called for more sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before policy-decisions are made.

In Thailand, for example, subsidized commercial shrimp farms can generate returns of around US$1,220 per hectare by clearing mangrove forests.

But this does not take into account the losses to local communities totaling over US$12,000 a hectare, linked with wood and non-wood forest products, fisheries and coastal protection services (Barbier 2007).

Nor does the profit to the commercial operators take into account the costs of rehabilitating the abandoned sites after five years of exploitation ? estimated at over US$9,000 a hectare.

Among its 10 key recommendations was a call for stepped-up investment in 'ecological infrastructure' as a way of concentrating minds on the fact there is more to an economy than roads, ports, telecommunications networks and other conventional forms of infrastructure.

TEEB's business-focused report outlined findings indicating that the externalities or impacts of the top 3,000-listed companies is over $2 trillion a year and put the case that consumers will increasingly demand to know a corporation's true global footprint.

The TEEB report for local and regional government again built the case that ecosystem services generate many of the conditions that make urban areas possible while citing examples where these natural assets are being factored into planning decisions.

? The replacement value of the South African municipality of Durban's ecosystem goods and services supplied by Durban's 2002 Open Space system was conservatively estimated at US$0.41 billion per annum.

? This figure does not include the tourism sector, which is valued at an additional US$0.44 billion per annum. The Municipality is now investigating how to value municipal-owned spaces and include them on its asset register in order to make better provision for ongoing management (Source: Richard Boon1).

The impact of TEEB blossomed in its final global report launched at the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan in 2010 while perhaps nailing the myth that natural systems can only be the preoccupation of the rich and affluent.

? It has been estimated that ecosystem services and other non-marketed natural goods account for 47 to 89 per cent of the so-called 'GDP of the Poor' (i.e. the effective GDP or total sources of livelihoods of rural and forest-dwelling poor households) in some large developing countries.

Several countries have or are now doing TEEB-like national assessments, including Colombia, India and the United Kingdom.

Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

The third stream running into Rio+20 was the issue of the institutions charged with managing global environmental policy-making, including UNEP.

The key question was whether they were up to the task or in need of reform?indeed in UNEP's 40th year increasingly intense calls to evolve UNEP into perhaps a World Environment Organization were coming from some governments.

The Future We Want

So what did Rio+20 decide set against this landscape?

Does it offer genuine pathways to sustainability and meaningful international cooperation that reflects differences and the differing points of development witnessed in the world in 2013?

Can it provide a trigger to overturn the kinds of findings and scenarios chronicled in reports like GEO-5?


Rio+20 took place in the same halls where the Rio Earth Summit was held in 1992 ? but its aim was not to generate more treaties. Rather it focused on ways of implementing existing treaties and the sustainable development agenda.

Rio+20 was also significant in respect to the role and engagement of civil society; cities, including senior mayors; judges and auditor generals; companies, including senior CEOs; and others.

If you are a poor farmer in Peru or a waste picker in Ouagadougou, the outcome of Rio+20 must seem remote and far away from the daily struggles of life.

Yet if nations, companies, cities and communities can move forward on the positive elements of the Summit's outcome it may assist in one day realizing the Future We Want outcome.

More precisely, Rio+20 laid out several inspiring pathways, many of which are the UN, countries, cities, business and civil society are engaging in.

Green Economy

First, Heads of State and more than 190 nations did embrace the Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Nations agreed that such a transition could be 'an important tool' when supported by policies that encourage decent employment, social welfare and inclusion and the maintenance of the Earth's ecosystems, from forests to freshwaters.

And at UNEP's 27th session of its Governing Council in February 2013 four UN agencies ? the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) ? announced under the Partnership for Action on a Green Economy that they will be assisting 30 countries to make that transition.

Sustainable Development Goals

The decision to evolve the Millennium Development Goals into Sustainable Development Goals as part of the post-2015 agenda could also prove significant.

The key will be goals that reflect not just the need to assist developing countries onto sustainable paths, but the impact of developed countries in respect to their global and regional footprints.

Beyond GDP

Rio+20 addressed growing concern that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may have out-lived its usefulness in a world where natural resource scarcity, pollution and social exclusion are also becoming drivers of whether a nation's wealth is truly going up or running down.

It requested the UN Statistical Commission to work with other UN bodies and organizations to identify new approaches for measuring progress drawing on a range of assessments.

These include the World Bank's Adjusted Net Saving indicator and UNEP and the UN University's Inclusive Wealth Index.

Consumption and Production

Another potentially significant step forward was the adoption of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production with UNEP requested to host the secretariat.

It covers several sectors ranging from tourism and agri-food to government procurement and lifestyles, and in many ways dovetails with the Green Economy pathways and programmes.

? In support of this, UNEP with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN has recently launched the Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint campaign aimed at reducing the one third of all the food that is lost or wasted today.

I hope as many of you as possible will join this campaign, which also supports the UN Secretary-General's Zero Hunger challenge.

Sustainable Procurement

During Rio+20 over 30 governments and institutions ? including Brazil, Denmark, Switzerland and UNEP ? announced a new global International Sustainable Public Procurement Initiative (SPPI) aimed at scaling-up the level of public spending flowing into goods and services that maximize environmental and social benefits.

Studies indicate that sustainable public procurement, which represents between 15 and 25 per cent of GDP, offers a tremendous opportunity for green innovation and sustainability.

Examples from around the world show that sustainable public procurement has the potential to transform markets, boost the competitiveness of eco industries, save money, conserve natural resources and foster job creation.

? In India, for example, government procurement is worth about US $300 billion and is expected to grow by more than 10 per cent annually in the coming years.

? Across the OECD group of countries, public procurement represents close to 20 per cent of GDP (over US $4,700 billion annually), while in developing countries the proportion can be slightly higher.

? Japan's Green Purchasing Policy has contributed to the growth of the country's eco-industries, estimated to be worth about ? 430 billion in 2010.

? Europe could save up to 64 per cent of energy ? or 38 TWh of electricity ? by replacing street lights with smarter lighting solutions

Sustainability Reporting

An estimated 25 per cent of the 20,000 companies tracked by Bloomberg are reporting their environmental, social and governance footprints ? but 75 per cent are not.

Such in-depth data offers the opportunity for pension funds to invest in companies with a long-term perspective of profits through sustainability reporting, while assisting governments in measuring the contribution of multi-nationals towards national sustainability goals and progress beyond GDP.

? At Rio+20 several countries including Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa ? several of whom already have stock exchanges requiring better reporting ? announced they would move forward on the issue with support from UNEP and the Global Reporting Initiative.

UNEP Upgrade

Rio+20 also agreed to 'strengthen' and 'upgrade' UNEP, including with universal membership and more stable and predictable funding ? a decision that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2012, leading to the institution's first Governing Council in 2013 held under universal membership.

Here ministers responsible for the environment called for the GC to be elevated to a UN Environment Assembly and discussions are underway at the UN in New York for tens of millions additional funding from the UN's regular budget by 2014.

The outcomes of Rio+20 may signal a new determination by and cooperation between governments to implement sustainable development as the only option for peace, security and prosperity into the future.

Rio+20 and the post-Rio+20 world also made some progress in terms of addressing culturally different political approaches.

For example Bolivia, which staunchly questioned a Green Economy, and China, whose chosen pathway was 'Ecological Civilization', came together to negotiate supportively and avidly on the topic at the recent UNEP GC.

Perhaps governments have finally seen the sobering science writ large on the present and increasingly on future generations and are finally joining the dots that may make a sustainable century possible.

Indeed, if societies are recognizing that equitably balancing all three dimensions of sustainable development is no longer a clash of ideals or a short changing of development and growth, but a question of tailoring sustainable development to national circumstances, then Rio+20 will have made its mark.

Clearly only time will tell if Rio+20 can usher in a new era, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

Two months ago, here in Switzerland governments finalized negotiations on a new global treaty on mercury, the notorious heavy metal, after more than a decade of debate.

And there are many other positive signs. In his State of the Union address 2013, President Barrack Obama signaled America's determination to re-engage on climate change.

China is planning to spend over $1 trillion on renewable energy and other environmental-based investments.

Kenya, where UNEP is headquartered, is investing and re-investing in its forests and multi-billion services alongside expanding geothermal and wind power.

And in December, at the UN climate change conference, governments agreed to establish a climate centre and networks to assist in fast-tracking the uptake of clean energy and energy-efficient buildings.

The world remains on the track GEO-5 illuminated but today the realization and the reality of transformational options and choices are far more on the global radar.

Rio+20 has played a role in focusing and concentrating minds on the Future We Want and has sparked a new wave of cooperative action?the challenge is to keep up the momentum.

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