Serie “Rio 92 what did it lead to? Rio +20 what will it lead to?”

Posted on 03 June 2012
Entrevista Carlos Nobre
© Roosevelt Pinheiro ABr
 Interview climatologist Carlos Nobre

Researcher Carlos Nobre, currently head of Research and Development Policies and Programmes at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation is one of the major international references on climate issues. He is the author of the hypothesis formulated 20 years ago regarding the ‘savannization’ of the Amazon as a result of massive deforestation processes.

Nobre, holds a degree in engineering from the Brazilian Air Force’s Institute of Technology and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a member of the Brazilian National Space Research Institute (Inpe) and was one of the authors of the Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which, in 2007, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Below are the highlights of an interview that he granted to WWF by telephone in which he made an assessment of the environmental discussions of the last two decades, especially those related to climate, and spoke about his expectations for the upcoming Rio + 20.

What were you doing at the time of the Rio 92? Were you already concerned about climate-change related issues?

I was so concerned at the time that I was heading the Brazilian part of an international experiment with England; an experiment designed to study the impacts on climate of anthropogenic disturbances in the Amazon. There was a showcase at the Rio 92 and we exhibited the preliminary results of the experiment that had begun in 1990 and which was still in course. I took part in various activities there, some of them in the former University of Brazil, organised by professor [Luiz] Pinguelli [Rosa] who spoke in a series of debates at the pre-Rio 92.

Was the Rio 92 of decisive importance in moving forward the climate change agenda?

Obviously, the Rio 92 was a tremendous catalyst. The most concrete results stemming from the Rio 92 were actually the international conventions, especially the Climate Convention and the Biological Diversity Convention; the Convention on Desertification was less important and the Convention on International Waters, even less. The Rio 92 conference was a great milestone in the discussion on the congruence of economic development and the preservation of the quality of the planet’s environment as a whole, and also a milestone in the process of raising awareness in regard to the so-called sustainable development agenda. It was simply a great moment for the United Nations and certainly represented a great step forward, at least in the symbolism it represented.

Although common sense suggests that climate change will come under discussion now at the Rio+20 Conference, that is not its main purpose.

That is not the primary purpose of the new conference because the Climate Convention took place and was ratified by most countries, and it had a very important offshoot, the Kyoto Protocol, and so that issue is not going to be taken up again, especially considering that every year there is a conference of the signatory parties to the Climate Convention. So, it would not make sense to hold yet another Earth Summit similar to that held in 1992. This summit needs to have a different objective in view. There is a lot of talk about sustainable development; it was a recurrent theme at that time as well, when the turn of the millennium was still eight years away. There was a lot of talk about the Agenda 21. Nevertheless, 20 years later we still need to take up the issue of sustainable development. It is no longer possible to completely separate certain themes and dimensions such as global environmental changes, in all of which climate change plays a preponderant role. The Rio + 20 will be addressing those issues in a more cross-cutting integrative way and not as if it were a mere negotiation of incremental advances on the question of climate change, a set of proposals being negotiated. The Rio + 20 proposal is to be very similar in its symbolic and historical aspects to the Rio 92. It is a great moment in which to reflect on the way the planet’s development is heading, on human development and an attempt to achieve convergence for sustainable development.

In what role will you be accompanying the Rio+20, as a member of the government or as an academic?

Currently I work for the government and I will be in the Brazilian delegation as a member of the government, but my mind works the way a scientist’s mind works.

What do you think the great legacy of the Rio+20 might be?

I think it will be like the legacy of Johannesburg in 2002 [World Summit on Sustainable Development] where the great social development objectives were defined – the Millennium Goals – I thing a great global agreement in regard to the sustainable development goals, would be very important. That would be the basic result. There should be a small, finite number of objectives that all the countries present agree to as they did 10 years ago when they agreed on a set of human and social development goals. They should agree to achieving certain objectives in a reasonable time frame of 10 to twenty years of sustainable development. The difference between an economic objective and one that is only a social one is that the two need to be intertwined. One cannot separate the environmental dimension from the social one or the economic one. They all have intertwined objectives. The very least I expect from the Rio + 20 is that it finalises with measurable, verifiable objectives and that all the countries will then have their own national programmes to implement those objectives. This decision is not a decision on implementation of something practical; it is just a decision on the objectives. They have to be broad, examine various dimensions, establish the link between sustainable use of natural resources and the eradication of poverty, with equality and the distribution of wealth, and the social indicators need to improve as well.

There is a huge debate in course today as to whether one important result for the Rio + 20 should be the creation of a World Environment Organisation. Brazilian diplomacy has tended to work more for a Sustainable Development Council within the UN and not an Organisation on the lines of the World Health Organisation, or Labour Organisation or Trade Organisation. My personal proposal is a bit more audacious, but it is my own, it is not something that has been brought up for discussion much. I feel that the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme] and the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] should be fused into a single programme. That is not even being discussed, but I would like to see those programmes joined into one and become a world sustainable development organisation.

What is your opinion of the base document for the Rio+20 Conference?

The draft zero of the basic conference document is a basic text that represents a collection of the positions of more than 200 countries. It is a very difficult piece of work to put together. That is the nature of the diplomatic work of trying to achieve consensus on multiple proposals, over 100 different proposals. Draft 1, which is now starting to appear, is a little more concise but obviously, here we are, it’s almost May the first and time is running out; but the draft 1 version of the text that will arrive at the Rio + 20 has a huge amount of diplomatic work in it and I am still optimistic that that the text will converge on some large points of consensus and, hopefully, a finite number of measurable sustainable development goals that can be implemented in the national, regional and global spheres in the course of the next 10 or 20 years and , who knows, there may be convergence on a governance mechanism on the international level, a council or some other body. That is not a game that will be over before June 22.

Has the scientific community’s interest in environmental issues undergone any change?

The scientific community’s interest in the broader issues of sustainable development has increased a lot. The scientific community does not divide itself up so much. There is not one scientific community for the environment area and another for the development area. The scientific community is heading this debate.

You can see from the scientific community’s support for the Forest Law discussions that there was not one scientific community with an environmental bias and another pending towards agronomy, economics or development. That simply did not happen. What we saw was the scientific community, represented by its organizations, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, giving tremendous support for a sustainable development model for Brazilian agriculture with preservation and conservation of our natural resources. That proposal, that very strong stance taken by the Brazilian scientific community, is a stance in favour of sustainable development. And sustainable development actually means a search for equilibrium. The scientific community has adopted the motto of sustainable development right from the inception as something for which science should develop the bases.

Has the force of scientists increased over the twenty-year period separating the Rio 92 and the Rio+20?

It is now far greater; so much so that every bit of progress made by the Climate Change Convention has been based on the best available science. Many things have improved their levels at least in the cases of the Climate Convention and the Biological Diversity Convention. All the environment conventions and sustainable development conventions are based on the very best science. Often the very best science is not implemented; sometimes it is not approved in the global sphere as was the case in Copenhagen [2009] and sometimes it has been approved in the global sphere but failed to have any repercussions at the local level. As an example, almost all countries signed the Kyoto protocol in 1997 but the American Congress has never ratified it. So even if global policy heads in the direction indicated by science as being the necessary public policy, sometimes a country or a country’s congress does not go in that direction.
Entrevista Carlos Nobre
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