Governance for Sustainability towards Rio+20

Ruben Zondervan • Jun 4th, 2012
Governance for Sustainability towards Rio+20

Originally published by Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research, in APN Newsletter, Volume 18, Issue 2, May 2012 (ISSN 2185-6907)

In 2012 it will be 40 years since the landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm) that led to the creation of UNEP; 25 years since the influential Brundtland Report on sustainable development; and 20 years since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro) that resulted in Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and the three Rio Conventions. All are major achievements in governance of sustainability.

But 2012 is not just about commemorating highlights from the past: A number of conferences important to global environmental change and sustainable development will take place in 2012: The 18th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP18), the G20 Summit, but first and foremost the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).

However, there have been plenty of conferences, action plans, roadmaps and reports over the last 40 years with less, if any impact in the history of international environmental governance. Slow, ineffective, and fragmented implementation of the agreements is further hampering governance of environmental change.

The unprecedented speed and magnitude of these changes, as indicated by numerous science assessments, raises urgency for 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. Such earth system governance is imperative in order to navigate the anthropocene and to provide stewardship for the planet.

In this regard, this year’s conferences should not follow the trend set in 2011 when the COP17 agreed on postponing agreement, and the Rio+20 process has become known to the general public by the decision to postpone the conference itself for frivolous reason.

But, there is more to annual COPs and Rio+20 than just a few days of intergovernmental get-together. These events are climaxes and catalysers of processes they are embedded in and which include countless actors including business associations, youth movements, major group representatives, regional organisations, alliances of cities, and many NGOs.

For example, the two themes of the Rio+20 Conference - green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development - have received ample attention by these actors over the past year already – and will increasingly do so as the conference draws closer.

The global environmental change research community has also joined this process towards Rio+20. For example, the four global environmental change research programmes (IHDP, IGBP, Diversitas and WCRP), as organizers of their joint Planet under Pressure Conference, have commissioned nine policy assessments with the aim to make concrete science-based policy recommendations for Rio+20. One of these assessments focuses on the institutional framework for sustainable development and has been compiled, based state-of-art in social sciences by the Earth System Governance Project.

The Policy Brief for example recommends applying systems of qualified majority voting in specified areas to strengthen international environmental treaties; creating multilaterally harmonized systems that allow for discriminating between products on the basis of production processes; developing or strengthening regulatory frameworks on inter alias emerging technologies water, food and energy; upgrading UNEP to a specialized UN agency; improving national governance; strengthening and streamlining public–private governance networks and partnerships; and crucially, strengthen accountability and legitimacy.

Many interesting ideas have been tabled by others as well, including ideas on an ombudsperson for future generations, regional conventions on transparency, a sustainable development council, and sustainable development goals. Many of them still lacking rigorous scientific assessment hence posing interesting new challenges and fields for research.

The Earth System Governance Project has taken the initiative to further investigate these reform directions and proposals and – based on existing knowledge and findings from science – to provide an ambitious vision for the required transformative change of governance for sustainability. This vision is called the “Hakone Vision”, named after the venue of the workshop in Japan at which it was developed in September 2011. In March 2012, these efforts culminated in the publication of “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance” in Science. This short article builds on the Policy Brief and is inspired by the Hakone Vision.

Overall, the contributions by the earth system governance research community call for a constitutional moment — the beginning of a reform process leading to transformative change of sustainability governance. The year 2012 offers an opportunity for this. No more, no less.


About the author

Ruben Zondervan is the Executive Director of the Earth System Governance Project. He is based at the International Project Office hosted by Lund University, Sweden.

Tags: anthropocene,Earth System Governance Project,Hakone,qualified majority voting,reform of UNEP,science-policy interface,United Nations Conference in the Human Development 1972,United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992,United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 Earth Summit),United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)