The Joint Liaison Group (JLG), an informal advisory body comprising the Executive Secretaries of the Rio Conventions as well as officers of the Conventions’ scientific subsidiary bodies and members of the secretariats, certainly has its hands full. Imagine you are a teacher. You just received a stack of papers in different languages, written by different authors, and focused on different thematic areas. Now imagine that you, as the teacher, must find the commonalities within these papers – the synergies – and then report back to the original authors on how they should focus on these commonalities in their next drafts. But whether or not they do focus on the commonalities is outside of your control, and the classroom is designed so that all authors are spread out, thereby limiting the opportunities for teamwork. That’s a little bit of the challenge which the JLG is asked to deal with when reviewing the progress of the Rio Conventions and advising on how to address the gaps through synergistic approaches. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s step back twenty years and see how we got to this point.
The Rio Conventions – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – came to life in 1992 at the infamous “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. Addressing a broad array of environmental concerns through the establishment of common objectives for countries to pursue for a more balanced and sustainable approach to environmental management, the Rio Conventions were a radical advancement at the time. They pursued three main themes: climate change, biodiversity loss, and desertification.
Nearly ten years after the establishment of the Rio Conventions, climate change was no closer to being addressed by Member Countries of the UNFCCC; biodiversity loss was still occurring and even accelerating in hot spots around the planet ; and many formerly verdant fields were going barren from persistent drought and soil erosion. By this time, each of the Rio Conventions had held several formal meetings, known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), and smaller informal gatherings. Each had memorialized numerous formal decisions at the COP meetings, and many of these decisions began to overlap in terms of content.
At around this same time (2000 – 2001), some people realized that perhaps it was not effective to address environmental challenges under the auspices of three separate approaches focused on climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification; perhaps, there are issues which transcend and cross over from one theme to the next, such as soil fertility.
Soil fertility depends in large part upon the available nutrients, which include basic elemental compounds such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen is also a fundamental nutrient in the growth of plant life, and of particular concern for farmers engaged in intensive agriculture. It is so important that a lack of available nitrogen for crops can actually present a natural limitation on the yield or output. At the turn of the twentieth century, this natural “carrying capacity” was a biological constraint on crop yields, presumably instilled by natural order so as to keep the soil balance in a homeostatic threshold. Yet this capacity constraint also kept human populations from expanding and held back “supply” at a certain level.
An industrial process known as “Haber-Bosch” radically broke down this limitation on crop yields by allowing farmers to take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and use it to make synthetic ammonia, which – when mixed with the dirt on the ground – would once again restore higher nitrogen levels to the soil, thereby shattering the capacity constraint and allowing more crop rotations to occur on the same patch of land in a shorter turnaround time . While this process was by no means organic or sustainable to the soil’s delicate balance of nutrients, it did revolutionize industrial agriculture in the twentieth century and presented a new view of interdependent processes where atmospheric nitrogen can be relevant to develop fertilizer, which in turn affects plant growth and ultimately changes soil content and soil fertility.
So which Rio Convention should be focused on the Haber-Bosch process – and, more broadly, soil fertility issues in general? The UNFCCC because of the contribution of atmospheric nitrogen to soil nutrients and the development of flora; the CBD because of the agricultural revolution and accompanying land use change; or the UNCCD because of the soil fertility itself? Add to this the effects of a changing climate (droughts, increased rainfall and flooding) on the precious topsoil layer and you get an even greater interrelationship. Perhaps the answer is that all three conventions need a say in the matter. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has echoed this in recent months by establishing the Ecosystem Management Programme (EMP). The EMP promotes the mainstreaming of the ecosystem approach, which “calls for the holistic management of land, water, sea and living resources to promote their conservation and sustainable use. This is in contrast to sectoral responses, such as water, agriculture and forests, in which each sector often is addressed independently, rather than as a unit of functionally interdependent ecosystems” .
Here enters the JLG. The JLG is, in some ways, attempting to reunify the Rio Conventions under an integrated and holistic ecosystem approach whereby environmental and ecological processes occur in a web of interlinked and interdependent processes. Formed in 2001, the JLG has spent the last decade meeting occasionally to see where thematic and independent responses by the CBD, UNFCCC and UNCCD might be better served by an aligned and synergistic approach – an ecosystem approach. Initially providing guidance on ways to improve collaboration on thematic issues which overlap, the JLG has expanded into “developing a number of cooperative activities” for the Rio Conventions to pursue .
Although this is commendable and a welcome development for improving implementation, the structure and mandate of the JLG has been flawed from the start. At the Eleventh Meeting of the JLG in 2011, JLG member and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres “highlighted that there is a need to exchange, agree upon and define the common framework, common purpose and guiding principles of work for the JLG” . One might wrongly assume that, ten years into the job, the JLG would already have defined a “common purpose and guiding principles”. Apparently a decade isn’t enough time to get things started.
But we shouldn’t blame the JLG or its members for the depressing lack of progress here. Theirs is a mission which is incredibly challenging and one which they lack the power and structural capabilities to achieve. The JLG identified five guiding principles at its eleventh meeting, three of which demonstrate the mismatch of the structure to the objective .
- Firstly, the JLG is not an implementation body (Principle 1); in other words, they lack the ability to see that their ideas actually get implemented.
- Secondly, the JLG, and the Rio Conventions in general, must show “respect for the existing differences in the modus operandi among the Conventions secretariats” (Principle 2) – read, the UNFCCC, the UNCCD and the CBD will do things differently in addressing thematic issues, and rather than converge them to address environmental concerns in a unified manner, they are to be left to operate independently.
- Thirdly, so as not to “increase” the level of bureaucracy in the Rio Conventions, the JLG should follow an “issue-based approach” (Principle 3). Considering the Rio Conventions are tasked on independently focused issues of climate change, biodiversity loss, and desertification, this sounds like more of the same.
In many ways, it is reminiscent of the classic nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, Cannot put Humpty-Dumpty together again” .
There is another possibility – albeit a radical notion – which could better position the Rio Conventions to collectively achieve their objectives in a unified manner. By rejecting a reductionist “issues-based approach” and instead coalescing around a systems-based approach, the Rio Conventions could collectively pool their financial, administrative and knowledge resources in such a way as to do more with less. By combining secretariat functions at one location – Bonn, Germany, where the UNFCCC and UNCCD are already based – significant cost savings could be realized .
In terms of implementation, this systems-based approach would go even further to eliminate overlap and independent “modus operandi”. By actually combining the Rio Conventions into a supra-convention – a so-called “Convention on Environmental Management” – no longer would ecosystems-based concerns like forests, soils, and atmosphere need to be separately addressed as isolated parts of a whole. Indeed, a “holistic” approach could then be followed wherein the very best researchers and the aligned national agencies could focus on the entire problems, not just aspects of the problems. Doing so would actually improve national implementation of the conventions, in part because national focal point agencies would have fewer meetings to attend, higher cost savings, and a greater understanding of the task at hand .
Of course there are significant hurdles and real challenges to embracing such an approach, including legal concerns and feasibility issues. But that alone should not stop the conversation before it starts. Indeed, more concerning than the challenges to a Convention on Environmental Management would seem to be the fact that in ten years, the JLG members – and the national agencies implementing the conventions – still don’t know what the group is supposed to be doing. Surely there must be a better way. Hopefully, we can place all options on the table and select what will work best. We must, not for Humpty Dumpty, but for the Earth’s sake.
 WWF (2010). Living Planet Index Interactive graph. Retrieved 12 August 2011 from WWF: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/living_planet_repo...
 Paul Roberts (2009). The End of Food. New York: Mariner Books. Pg. 20.
 David Osborn (9 August 2011). Guest Article #5: An Irreversible Truth. Retrieved 14 August 2011 from IISD Biodiversity Policy & Practice: http://biodiversity-l.iisd.org/guest-articles/an-irreversible-truth/
 CBD Secretariat (2011). Joint Liaison Group. Retrieved 14 August 2011 from Convention on Biological Diversity: http://www.cbd.int/cooperation/liaison.shtml
 JLG (2011). Eleventh Meeting of the Joint Liaison Group of the Rio Conventions. Summary Report. http://www.cbd.int/doc/reports/jlg-11-report-en.pdf
 William Wallace Denslow (1903). Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty. London.
. Walker Young (2010). Rio Conventions Redux: An Argument for Merging the Trio into a Single Convention on Environmental Management. Consilience – The Journal of Sustainable Development 4(1): 134 – 154.
About the author
Walker Young is a management systems consultant who has worked with multinational corporations, intergovernmental organizations and international NGOs in a diverse range of markets including the United States, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. He has published numerous papers which focus on methods for improving the national implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), including using public-private partnerships and other multi-stakeholder approaches. Mr. Young received his M.A. in Environment, Development and Sustainability from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and his B.Sc. and B.A. degrees in Management Systems Engineering and Economics from Columbia University in New York.
A monitoring specialist, Walker is currently consulting for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the design and implementation of monitoring and performance evaluation frameworks for several transboundary environmental projects.