Rio+20: Where’s the Science?

June 21, 2012 | 3:34 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

Yesterday was the official opening of the Rio+20 summit, with heads of state and government ministers descending on RioCentro for the opening ceremony. For all intents and purposes though, the negotiations are over and all that is left is for the politicians to makes statements about the final text. Given that we now have what will presumably be the final text, I decided to take a look and figure out the state of science in the text.

The state of the science is… mixed

rio + 20 summit

This is part of a series of posts straight from the Rio +20 Summit.

On the whole, the inclusion of science is a mixed bag within the document.  The words science and scientific appear 33 times, while research appears 17 times, and evidence-based appears just 3 times.  Technology appears 60 times, mostly in the context of energy technology, which has its own dedicated section (B) in the means of implementation (VI) part of the document.


The official title of the Rio text is "The Future We Want", but it's not clear that anyone wants the future laid out in the document

Among the stakeholder groups, the science and tech community has good representation:

48. We recognize the important contribution of the scientific and technological community to sustainable development. We are committed to working with and fostering collaboration among academic, scientific and technological community, in particular in developing countries, to close the technological gap between developing and developed countries, strengthen the science-policy interface as well as to foster international research collaboration on sustainable development.

However, as I highlighted in my post yesterday, it is the verbs that count, and for the most part the science verbs are weak ones.  Science is often “recognized” or “acknowledged”, while the science-policy interface is often called to be “strengthened”, but the only science related commitment I could identify was buried at the end of paragraph 163:

We further commit to take action by 2025, based on collected scientific data, to achieve significant reductions in marine debris to prevent harm to the coastal and marine environment.

Otherwise there are few action items associated with science and, where science is used as an action, it is mostly in the form of a report with no guarantee that that report will actually inform policy decisions.

There is no mention that green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should (paragraph 58) be based on science (although there is a call to close the technology gap among countries). The text later acknowledges that it is important to use the best available scientific data when conducting cost-benefit analyses of these policies (paragraph 63), but this is as strong as that section gets.

International venues for sustainable development


Pavilion for the conventions that were established at Rio+0. Scant progress has been made on these in the past 20 years and given what was produced at Rio+20 little good is expected to happen in the next 20.

The Rio text as a whole highlights a number of international venues to address sustainable development.

When calling to strengthen the “institutional framework for sustainable development” (paragraph 76) science is again called out explicitly:

(g) promote the science-policy interface through inclusive, evidence-based and transparent scientific assessments, as well as access to reliable, relevant and timely data in areas related to the three dimensions of sustainable development, building on existing mechanisms, as appropriate; in this regard, strengthen participation of all countries in international sustainable development processes and capacity building especially for developing countries, including in conducting their own monitoring and assessments;

However, strengthening a vague framework to promote the science-policy interface sounds to me like a whole lot of nothing.

There is also a call to establish a high level policy forum that could (not should) produce a science-based global sustainable development report (paragraph 85k). It is unclear what this forum will do and there is no guarantee that the report will be used to inform policy decisions.

Many groups had expectations the Rio text would strengthen the historically weak UN Environment Program (UNEP) and it has taken some steps towards doing that by asking the UN general assembly to beef up UNEP in a number of ways (88). But here again, the requests for science are just to write a report (88d) and to disseminate the results (88e).

Science is not where the action is


A banner hanging in Riocentro. Based on the lack of decisions in the Rio text, the future does not look bright.

In the “framework for action and follow-up” section of the text (V) there is no general call for actions to be science-based (not that such a thing was expected, but a boy can dream, can’t he?) but it is highlighted in a few of the issue areas.  The agriculture (paragraph 114), population (paragraph 144), oceans (paragraph 160), climate change (paragraphs 190-191), biodiversity (paragraph 204) land-use (paragraph 207-208), and chemicals (paragraph 220) sections all highlight the role of science, but again have no explicit calls to translate that science into action. The countries do commit to mobilize funding for a science-based sustainable development information system (paragraph 251), but with no indication how this data will be used.

More than a missed opportunity

There are countless scientific papers which underline and address the issues addressed in the Rio text.  The vast majority of these papers show that we are pushing the boundaries of our planet, and many offer solutions of how to address this. For example, in 2009 Johan Rockstrom and others published a paper which showed that we are already well outside the sustainable planetary bounds for biodiversity loss, climate change, and nitrogen cycling, and well on our way for a number of other categories.  As recently as this month, Nature published a piece grading the world’s progress on commitments since Rio+0, and the results were not good. Yet none of this made it into the text in any actionable way.

Planetary Bounds

Figure from the Rockström et al. paper showing the areas where humans have already exceeded the planets bounds. (Nature 2009)

Why should that be? It is not as though science is absent from Rio. There are no fewer than three scientific conferences happening in Brazil around the time of Rio+20 (the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation annual conference, the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, and the International Society for Ecological Economics meeting ) in addition to the numerous side events highlighting the latest work at the “science-policy interface”.

With so much evidence and so many scientists speaking so loudly, this document seems like more than a missed opportunity, it seems like an outright insult. The scientific and technical community, so valued as a stakeholder, working at the science-policy interface has well documented what we are doing to this planet and offered many solutions on how to achieve the future we want.  The science-policy interface does not need to be strengthened; it is plenty strong and getting stronger. What is needed is for policy makers to open their eyes, uncover their ears, and pay attention.