Rio+20: Take science seriously and change the process

Civil society hasn’t had nearly enough involvement in the Rio process. Antonio Lacerda/EPA

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), could have brought us closer to a strengthened earth system governance. Closer towards a global, effective architecture for governance of sustainability that can adapt to changing circumstances, that involves civil society, that is accountable and legitimate beyond the nation state and that is fair for everyone.

It could have been. But the negotiated text agreed before the conference is weak. It falls behind expectations of most countries, and is disappointing to practically all civil society organisations. The global intergovernmental negotiation process has failed. Again.

In a recent blog-contribution two renowned scientists affiliated to the Earth System Governance Project, Steinar Andresen (The Fridtjof Nansen Institute), and Arild Underdal (University of Oslo and CICERO) therefore concluded that “we do not need to bringing thousands of participants to a series of mega-conferences to confirm that the range of politically feasible solutions is quite narrow”.

This is certainly true when measuring the Rio+20 Conference against what it is on paper: A meeting of UN member states. But there is more Rio+20 than just a few days of intergovernmental get-together. The Rio+20 Conference is the climax and a catalyser of the multi-year process it is embedded in. This process involves more than diplomats and international bureaucracies. It includes countless actors ranging from business associations, to youth movements, major group representatives, regional organisations, alliances of cities, corporate leaders, and many NGOs.

The Rio+20 Process also has strong involvement from the global scientific community. Scientists provide evidence of the environmental, social, and economic state of society and the planet; advise national delegations and NGOs, analyse the negotiation process as such, and not least bring their research findings as policy recommendations into the process.

Recommendations to Rio+20

Social scientists have made substantial progress in identifying the factors that foster the creation of international environmental treaties and pointed out the significant potential for incremental improvement to get better treaties sooner. They suggest conducting negotiations within existing institutions, splitting problems into smaller packages, or having a stronger reliance on qualified majority voting. Political systems that rely on majority-based decision-making arrive at more far-reaching decisions more quickly.

These recommendations are taken from an assessment of the state of knowledge in the social sciences by a group 32 researchers affiliated to the Earth System Governance Project – a global research alliance. This assessment has been published as policy brief for the Planet under Pressure Conference and as scientific article in Science and in longer version in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.

Other recommendations for Rio+20 by the Earth System Governance Project include:

  • creating multilaterally harmonised systems that allow for discriminating between products on the basis of production processes, hence enabling trade policies that favour more sustainably produced products. Under current global trade law, this is not possible

  • developing or strengthening regulatory frameworks for emerging technologies in water, food and energy

  • upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme to a specialised UN agency

  • improving national governance

  • strengthening and streamlining public–private governance networks and partnerships

  • and crucially, strengthen accountability and legitimacy.

The gap between knowledge and action

Despite many studies and recommendations from the scientific community, and various references to the importance of research and technology in the current Rio+20 outcome text, the Rio+20 process has not systematically taken up research findings. It has ignored those on strengthening governance and improving policy processes, and those from natural sciences that provide clear evidence for the need for urgent and transformative change.

This again illustrates what we know all too well: having adequate and appropriate knowledge does not necessarily lead to requisite actions. In the gap between knowledge and action lie crucial issues. It is not only how knowledge is produced and by whom, but equally crucially how knowledge is framed and communicated by whom for what purpose and in what context, and how it is learned and understood by relevant stakeholders.

We must continue rigorous, curiosity-driven interdisciplinary social science research on options for a strengthened institutional framework for sustainable development in the time beyond the failed Rio+20 Conference. But the global change research community also has to strengthen and improve its efforts in communicating its findings to policy makers and other stakeholders in order to close the gap between knowledge and action.

This article is written on personal title and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Earth System Governance Project or Lund University.