At the end of March 2012, London saw the largest gathering of global change scientists leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) at a conference titled “Planet Under Pressure 2012.” More than 3,000 delegates were present at the conference venue and over 3,500 attended virtually via live web streaming. The conference set out the scientific background and presented new recommendations for the Rio+20 conference, including:
- Going beyond GDP by taking into account the value of natural capital when measuring progress.
- A new framework for developing a set of goals for global sustainability for all nations.
- Creating a UN Sustainable Development Council to integrate social, economic and environmental policy at the global level.
- Launching a new international research programme, Future Earth, that will focus on solutions.
- Initiating regular global sustainability analyses
The first State of the Planet Declaration was issued at the conference, reflecting the key messages that emerged from the Planet Under Pressure conference. The statement warns that scientific studies show that current human activities threaten the functioning of the Earth system which support continued well-being of the human civilization. It suggests that global sustainability must become a foundation of society and points out important areas of new scientific understanding in this area – including the adoption of the term ‘Anthropocene,’ a new epoch, in which many Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. The statement also highlights the need for further inter- and trans-disciplinary research. The authors see the Rio+20 conference as an opportunity for taking action and bringing outcomes on these topic.
As a part of the preparations for the conference, a series of nine policy briefs were produced by the scientific community, specifically targeting policy-makers in the Rio+20 process. The briefs provide information on the latest scientific thinking in nine areas of sustainable development relevant to the Rio+20 conference: Water security, Food security, Biodiversity and ecosystems, Transforming governance and institutions, Interconnected risks and challenges, Energy security, Health, Well-being, and Green economy.
The Green economy policy brief, titled “A green economy for a planet under pressure,” attempts to set out the guidelines for the social and technological transformations needed for a new economic system, as well as the new ways in which we will need to measure and monitor this system. One of the key points highlighted in the brief is that our economic system has to start to respect planetary boundaries of the Earth and be in line with people’s well-being at the same time. Based on these two points, the brief calls for a re-design of trade rules, financial flows and investment to improve our natural, social as well as human capital. It also suggests that there is a need for a social transformation process and that we need to strive for post-consumerism and post-materialist society.
In order to achieve this ‘economic transition,’ the report calls on governments, organizations as well as the United Nations to lead and support this process. It is suggested, for instance, that the United Nations Statistics Office should support countries to move beyond gross domestic product and develop Inclusive Wealth Accounts as a new macroeconomic indicator to measure progress in human well-being.
The Well-being policy brief, titled “Human well-being for a planet under pressure: Transition to social sustainability,” examines the need for urgent, innovative solutions and sets out key messages and recommendations that will guide humanity on the road to a more sustainable socioeconomic and ecological future. The authors stress that both social and environmental sustainability are needed for overall human well-being, since these are closely connected. It is underlined that despite being complex, multidimensional and context-specific, well-being is currently measured by the economic community in very narrow terms, most notably by focusing on the gross domestic product (GDP).
The brief suggests that policymakers need to go beyond single measures and develop tools, methodologies and metrics that are multidimensional and nationally standardized, while simultaneously acknowledging differing contexts, universal rights and freedoms. The transition to a ‘Green Economy’ is seen as an important means for improving overall human well-being. The brief concludes that a trans-disciplinary research effort is needed in order to improve understanding of the links among comprehensive human well-being, ecological and socioeconomic systems and sustainable development.