10.04.2012 - BSP / Natural Science Sector

Providing scientific leadership towards Rio+20

UNESCO provided scientific leadership towards the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) through its work to organize the Planet Under Pressure Conference held in London from 26-29 March 2012, as the co-chair of the International Scientific Organizing Committee.

The conference brought together over 3,000 scientists, political leaders, academics, health specialists, representatives of other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and the media, from around the world to discuss global challenges on climate change, ocean acidification, ecological degradation, human well-being, planetary thresholds, food security, energy and governance and offer new sustainable solutions for Rio+20. 

Conference participants issued the first State of the Planet Declaration, which included the following main messages:

  • 1.    Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has driven the planet into a new epoch – the Anthropocene – which is comparable to planetary-scale geological processes evoking major landscape changes and mass extinctions at the species level induced by human activity. Researchers must identify the planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could result in serious social, economic and environmental crises.
  • 2.    A polycentric approach to planetary stewardship is needed which creates diverse partnerships among governments, businesses and civil society. This includes a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments should take action to improve coherence and promote integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars at the national level. A Sustainable Development Council is needed within the UN System to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level.
  • 3.    Ecology must be integrated into the economy. The monetary and non-monetary values of the global public goods, such as our ocean and our atmosphere, must be factored into decision-making frameworks.
  • 4.    New global sustainable development goals with new indicators and targets are needed to promote planetary stewardship, which are applied to all levels of governance. The research community must be involved in the development of these goals, targets and indicators, recognizing interconnected issues and building on existing measure of well-being.
  • 5.    GDP cannot be the sole constituent of well-being, other indicators, including qualitative ones, must be developed that measure actual improvements of well-being at all scales.
  • 6.    A new framework is needed for regular global sustainability analyses that link with existing assessments, and builds on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services and other pertinent ongoing efforts. This can help promote the science-policy interface.
  • 7.    A new approach to research is needed which is more integrated, international and solutions-oriented and which informs new interdisciplinary global sustainability policies. This research must integrate across existing research programmes and disciplines, across all domains of research, across the North and South, include local knowledge systems, and be co-designed and implemented with input from governments, civil society, research funders and the private sector. A new major research initiative 'Future Earth - research for global sustainability' was launched with support from a number of global-environmental-change programmes, including UNESCO, which aims to achieve these objectives.

In his video message during the high-level segment, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called upon the scientific community to help make sense of the complex and interconnected challenges --including climate change, the financial crisis and food, water and energy insecurity -- that threaten human well-being and civilization as we know it. The Secretary-General informed the meeting of his intention to engage the scientific community in taking forward the science-related recommendation of his High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, with support from UNESCO Director-General Bokova. In conclusion, the Secretary-General welcomed the State of the Planet Declaration issued by the Conference and its timing, noting that 'Rio+20 is a major opportunity to advance the policy–science interface.'

The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also took part in the high-level segment and noted her commitment to placing science at the heart of all efforts for sustainable development and  highlighted the Organization’s role in helping States answer key questions about equitable and inclusive growth together, with the help of science.

The Assistant Director-General of the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission of UNESCO, Wendy Watson-Wright, closed the conference on behalf of the Director-General of UNESCO, and spoke about 'The Way Ahead.' 

A number of parallel sessions were organized with UNESCO’s partners during the Conference in preparation for Rio+20 on the following topics:

  • Ocean acidification: ecological impacts and societal implications (UNESCO-IOC). This session focused on the multiple stressors that are affecting the health of the oceans of ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation, which are occurring as a result of climate change.
    It was noted that we must substantially reduce our CO2 emissions, as ocean acidification is mainly caused by CO2, and that other greenhouse gases must also be limited as they all contribute to ocean warming and hence deoxygenation. International ocean governance, planning and financing for adaptation strategies are also needed to protect our ocean.
    At regional and local levels, it is important to reduce other environmental stressors such as local sources of pollution into the ocean. Research is also needed to improve the knowledge and understanding of these multiple stressors.  This requires a mutli-disciplinary approach to research across the physical, life, chemical, Earth, social and economic sciences.
  • Mountains as arenas for adaptation to global change (UNESCO-MAB). The session considered mountains as arenas for adaptation to global change. Mountain regions, particularly in tropical regions where they are prime human habitat, are increasingly threatened by climate change, demographic pressure, and economic development that in many cases lead to resource depletion and degradation, hindering the provision of critical goods and services to both mountain inhabitants and lowland communities.
    Mountains are at the same time social and political arenas with a wide range of management arrangements, including private property, traditional common property regions, national scale parks and reserves, and international treaties, all embedded within a rapidly changing global economic context that can create tensions between local mountain residents and distant users of mountain resources.
    The following three key messages were identified for future action:
    • Need to continue to inventory the diversity of institutional arrangements in mountain regions at different scales, regional to local.
    • Need a more rigorous assessment of the performance and effectiveness of these institutional arrangements.
    • Transdisciplinary science should play a role in such arrangements and lessons learnt from biosphere reserves should be used to foster sustainable development through applied science.
  • Indigenous knowledge and sustainable futures: community-based evaluations of climate change vulnerability, adaptation and innovation (UNESCO – LINKS). This session focused on recognizing that climate change adaptation must be rooted in local priorities. Within the framework of the UNESCO’s joint project with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity on Climate Frontlines, the panel brought together indigenous experts and researchers to discuss the contributions of community-based knowledge in assessing environmental change, adapting livelihoods and shaping national goals and global priorities, with case studies from the Sahel, the South Pacific, North America and the Himalayas.
    The moderated discussion session advanced global sustainability by building synergies among knowledge systems so as to enhance equity and effectiveness of environmental governance. More information on this event is available on the Climate Frontlines website.

All of the sessions were very well attended. They helped to raise awareness among the conference participants about UNESCO’s work in these areas and to identify areas for further joint collaboration and action in the lead up to Rio+20.

Information on UNESCO’s work to promote sustainable development was also widely diffused among the conference participants through the UNESCO booth. This included UNESCO’s organization-wide publication for Rio+20 'From Green Economies to Green Societies', the 'Blue Print foe ocean and Coastal Sustainability', information on the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS), as well as the Fourth Edition of the World Water Development Report, and related water publications.    

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