Global Environmental Quality: Recommendations for Rio+20 and Beyond

In June 1972, the United Nations convened the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The conference led to the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and produced a declaration whose first principle states:

“Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.”

Each decade since Stockholm and its lofty principles, the UN has held a conference to review the past 10 years and make plans for the future: 1982 in Nairobi, 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (the “Earth Summit”), and 2002 in Johannesburg. If there has been a trend over the past 40 years, it is greater emphasis on development and social issues and less on simply protecting the environment where humans live. But this trend is not black and white. The Stockholm declaration, for example, states that in developing countries “most of the environmental problems are caused by under-development.” The principal commonality of these four UN conferences is that they have expressed big ideas and big plans, with not so much to show for them in the aftermath.

The next conference is scheduled for June 2012, once again in Rio de Janeiro. This conference is formally titled the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and known informally as Rio+20. One hopes for the best next summer, but expectations are low. Not only are the past 40 years an unpromising history, including the de-railing of emission limitations addressing climate change, but the current financial and political climate is a bear-trap for action, whose most pointed jaws extend from the world’s largest economy – the United States of America.

The agenda for Rio+20 is guided by a UN Secretary-General (SG) report on objectives and themes. The report instructs that the two principal themes will be –

“green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development — in relation to the objective of renewed political commitment to sustainable development, reviewing progress and implementation gaps and addressing new and emerging challenges.”

The SG’s report has 123 paragraphs but does not specify any particular conference objectives. The report ends with seven “messages” under the heading “The Way Forward.” Some of these have recommendations. For example, the last of these messages states: “Member States should have an active role in providing political guidance to the United Nations system for overcoming the institutional fragmentation and lack of integration of the three pillars of sustainable development [environmental, economic, and social].” This and the other recommendations acknowledge problems, but they offer little guidance for action in Rio.

The history of multilateral environmental initiatives is one of growing complexity in the number of agencies and organizations involved and in the purposes served. It is also is a history of jargon. What does it mean to say that a theme of Rio+20 is the “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication”? Does this mean an economy where resources are managed to provide high environmental and other living standards for everyone? What is meant by the term “green economy?” Is it simply a reference to doing business in ways that are best for environmental quality? That’s an old story and a work in progress. Does it mean something else?

The governments participating in Rio+20 need a short list of actions that will advance environmental quality. Nine recommendations are offered below for consideration. It is stipulated, but not repeated in these, that environmental quality should be equitable and sustainable, pursued in conjunction with economic and social objectives, and undertaken with priority for poverty alleviation:

1. Commission a new, independent, credible assessment of environmental status and trends. This is needed and would inform the measures recommended in paragraph 2. The assessment should include a critical evaluation of limits on progress-to-date on both environmental measures, such as those reported by the World Bank, and related, broader Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It’s time to take a fresh, fair look at where we are and why we haven’t gone further, and to make sure we use good measures of success in the future. Failure to achieve the MDGs throws a wrench into any form of global cooperation, so we need to figure out how to move those goals forward.

2. Agree to develop common measures for monitoring status and trends in environmental quality. It is evident the GDP does not fully address the well-being of people or, particularly, environmental quality. Several general approaches have been developed by international organizations, NGOs, and by individual governments that give a more accurate assessment than GDP. Representatives at Rio+20 should agree to develop common measures for national and global environmental quality drawing from work-to-date and how that work could be potentially incorporated into broader measures of well-being. These measures should be updated regularly and transparently on a Web site maintained by the United Nations and open to everyone.

3. Establish a new organizational framework for international environmental leadership.  Few would disagree that we lack the strong, adequately funded, organization for the environmental leadership required to meet Earth’s challenges. Some have proposed to establish a World Environmental Organization or Global Environmental Organization (proponents distinguish between these two), and these proposals warrant discussion. A more modest but feasible step that could be taken at Rio+20 would be to establish a coordinating framework around UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and perhaps other international organizations with bearing on the global environment. A permanent committee of these agencies (Committee) could be tasked with providing a single voice on fundamental information and measures, such as those referenced above in paragraphs 1 and 2, and with providing unified recommendations for actions. Establishing this Committee need not require new policy obligations for the national governments participating in Rio+20. It could save money if the Committee consolidates overlapping structures and functions, and if most work is done through online collaboration. A further step might be for the Committee to support and advance the work of the various secretariats established under multilateral environmental agreements.

4. Agree that national governments will take steps to redress any degradation in environmental quality demonstrated in measures developed pursuant to paragraph 2 and to upload a description of those measures to the UN Website. This commitment should be kept general at this time to facilitate its adoption, with potential for future refinement left open.

5. Agree to launch a global initiative to freeze and preserve the DNA and viable tissue of all known species and new species as they are discovered. Species are disappearing every day, and DNA has been preserved for just a fraction of the 1.8 million known. Establishing a frozen tissue culture costs no more than $300 per species, with negligible maintenance costs, hence preserving DNA and tissue of all known species would cost no more than $540 million, or less than the United States pays in a single day on its debt. This particular, concrete step would assure that the genetic footprints of life will not disappear as humans plow and heat the Earth. Its agreement at Rio+20 and execution after would much more than make the meeting a success.

6. Agree to promote and invest in science and cultural education for environmental quality by funding educational programs of environmental agencies. Knowledge is the preamble to useful action, and issues concerning environmental quality are complex. Nothing is more important to progress on governmental policy and investment than the education of the people who are represented by governments. Two educational priorities stand out in the quest for global environmental quality and Rio+20. One is science. The “greenhouse” effect, for example, is not a surprise to those who understand a little Physics. The other priority is better understanding of the different cultures and languages of the world. It is well demonstrated that people interpret information through the lenses of the cultures they embody. Effective communication requires appreciation not just of information shared but of how that information is received. Hence investment in education on the different world cultures, including time spent living in different cultures and training in languages, is key to actually communicating and potentially agreeing on ways forward for global environmental quality.

A good and cost-effective way to link educational funding to environmental quality is to provide the funding through environmental agencies. In the United States these are agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These agencies currently develop curricula for formal education (e.g. weather courses from NOAA) and provide a range of informal educational offerings (e.g. student fellowships for work on environmental issues at school or at the agencies, agency websites, exhibits at natural history and science museums, and interpretation at parks and marine protected areas. Cultural education and exchange can be made part of the program – for example, fellowships can include international exchange, websites are international and can be multilingual, and exhibits can travel internationally. Nations with development assistance agencies can support such programs abroad through the environmental agencies of the developing nations they are working with. In the United States, this is often and usefully done with the guidance, and in some cases, management of funds by the donor nation environmental agencies. For example, the international program of the FWS has long received and disseminated funds provided to it by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Capacity building is, and should, be a priority in development funding.

7. Agree to promote and invest in education for women. In many places girls and women are excluded from formal educational opportunities offered to boys and men. Yet women have a central role in environmental, economic, and social life. Many are proven public leaders in environmental concerns, and many more affect the environment through their roles in families and groups. Furthermore, some research suggests that women on the whole cooperate better than men, and none would dispute that they are less engaged in armed conflict, except as bystanders or victims. The participants in Rio+20 should make involvement of girls and women a top priority as they promote and invest in education and cultural exchange as recommended in paragraph 6.

8. Agree to invest in the conduct and dissemination of research and the recruitment of talent applied to environmental quality. Advances in science and technology complement and may well exceed government regulation in contributing to future environmental quality. Avenues with great potential for progress include biotechnology, nuclear and solar energy, carbon sequestration, and water desalinization. Research depends heavily on government investment, which is in danger of restriction rather than growth in the next decade. The nations participating in Rio+20 should take a stand in support of increased research funding for the topics above and other environmental priorities and should articulate the economic leverage that government research investment has found in the past, such as in development of the Internet. In addition, the Rio+20 participants should agree to reduce barriers to travel and immigration for the talent that drives research. Such individuals should go wherever their abilities will be best expressed, and their work should be made available globally.

9. Agree to develop and invest in physical and regulatory infrastructure promoting environmental quality. Aging, outdated infrastructure is the bane of global environmental quality. Electrical power requires a grid for delivery, but current grids are tailored to fossil fuels. Many existing power plants are dated, less efficient, and more polluting than new technologies for the same fuels. Transportation remains dependent on energy-intensive cars and trucks, and work-forces remain dependent on using them. On average, existing residential and commercial structures use far more energy than necessary. Many cities, with multiple dimensions of infrastructure, continue to grow without planning, and bordering natural and agricultural areas are converted to suburban and urban satellites when city cores fail to provide space and services. Regulatory infrastructure -the laws and procedures for approval of investment in the physical – is also antiquated and flawed, delaying good actions and allowing bad.

These nine recommendations cover much ground, and Rio+20 is admittedly one of many venues where policy and investment for education, research and infrastructure are being considered. But these enterprises are probably the most fundamental to making Earth’s future environment a place worth living in. Policies may come and go with an election or a coup, but education, research and infrastructure set longer-term directions. The participants in Rio+20 are well advised to side-step the textual sophistry that international diplomacy chronically entails and be concrete. But that doesn’t mean think small.