Automatgenererad bild.

18 September 2012

Interest in planetary limits at Rio

The Stockholm Resilience Centre contributed to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, in a wide range of ways, from formulating new research initiatives to a high-level dialogue between research and policy. The Centre’s research received a great deal of attention and is assisting work towards global sustainability objectives.

The final international document from the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June was fairly vague, in most environmentalists’ view. The decision-makers made no specific undertakings in terms of sustainable development. However, the interdisciplinary Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) at Stockholm University contributed in several respects.

– We had plenty of activities both before and during the Rio conference and they’re still in progress. They include arranging a series of meetings between outstanding researchers in the recurrent Nobel symposia and members of the United Nation’s high-level panel for sustainable development, says Fredrik Hannerz, advisor at SRC, which is funded by Mistra.

The outcome of this dialogue between Nobel laureates and policymakers was presented to the heads of state and negotiators. The main message was that there is no time to lose in finding collaborative ways of adapting society to meet the challenges.

– The dialogue was part of our work of bringing the science out into the open in the Rio process — something that, to date, had largely been lacking. Unfortunately, the science can’t be said to have then been reflected to any great extent in the outcome document from the conference, Hannerz adds.

Nevertheless, he emphasises the good news: that it was decided that the UN should define global sustainability objectives for 2013. The new objectives are based on the current Millennium Development Goals, and the process has just begun. SRC has a key role to play in providing scientific support through the network of leading scientists that has recently been launched by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and that is to work in parallel with an international panel of politicians.

Planetary limits in focus

– It was also exciting that the planetary limits we were using were put forward — by many stakeholders, including the EU — as a negotiation issue in Rio, Hannerz says.

Ahead of Rio+20, the model of defining global limits came in for some criticism of how effectively it can contribute to political negotiations. One viewpoint was that some of the nine areas in the model should be regulated at local or regional level, rather than globally.

According to Fredrik Hannerz, the researchers behind the model pointed out right from the start that tackling issues on every scale is relevant but that it is, at the same time, important to ensure their mutual compatibility.

– The issue of fresh water, for example, may appear at first glance to be local and regional. But it affects both land use and climate, for instance, so it has a global impact. Agreeing on planetary limits raises distribution issues, and the criticism during the Rio summit was based in politics, not science. So the fact that it comes from countries that are opposed to setting global limits in the climate talks, as in other contexts, isn’t surprising.

Hannerz finds it exciting that the model is now being developed further and in greater depth by other scientists worldwide, including the UK, where social planetary limits representing an attempt to identify human needs have been developed.

Research film opened high-level meeting

SRC also contributed to communication concerning how we human beings are beginning to effect fundamental changes in conditions for life on Earth. At the meeting, the popular science film Anthropocene and a website of the same name were presented in cooperation with other research stakeholders, including the Stockholm Environment Institute.

– The film received a huge amount of attention, very much thanks to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon selecting it for the opening ceremony at the high-level meeting in Rio.

New international research initiatives including SRC were also launched during the meeting. These relate both to urban environments and biodiversity, on the one hand, and to how the Earth and humanity can meet the changes that lie ahead. The latter initiative is called Future Earth and it will involve thousands of scientists from various research fields. Johan Rockström is one of the people who are heading this initiative and the International Council for AScience (ICSU) has a key role.