Gear change on road to Rio?

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

image copyrightAP
image captionReform of the UN's internal democracy is urged

One of the biggest questions being asked in the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference this June is also one of the oldest.

In a nutshell: does the way humanity governs itself need a series of tweaks or a complete overhaul, in order to meet the broadest ambitions of improving the lot of the planet's poorest, safeguarding nature and making the global economy more sustainable?

It's a question that one academic grouping, the Earth System Governance Project, has spent a decade researching.

The group has published many research papers along the way, and some are pretty specialised.

But this week they lay out the top-level conclusion in a short article in the journal Science.

It is that in order to "change course and steer away from critical tipping points... that might lead to rapid and irreversible change", something radical is needed.

"This requires fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective Earth system governance and planetary stewardship," they write.

Theirs is a seven-point plan:

  1. reform the UN's environmental agencies and programmes
  2. morph the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) into something more representative and influential
  3. deploy innovative technologies such as synthetic biology and geo-engineering, with rules and safeguards
  4. reflect sustainability concerns in economic and trade institutions
  5. introduce qualified majority voting when making international decisions on environment and sustainability
  6. strengthen the voices of citizens as opposed to bureaucrats in global decision-making
  7. support developing countries more to ensure fairness.

Some of these are already being addressed in the Rio process, especially the first two; although their CSD proposal contains the innovative element of adjusting the weight given to each country's representation so that the G20 grouping accounts for 50% of the votes.

image copyrightAFP
image captionAccess to water - a main aim of Rio - would flow more smoothly after reforms, the academics argue

This might appear undemocratic; but actually it would ensure the voting reflects the size of countries' populations more accurately than it does now, though also skewing things towards the rich.

The most radical idea in procedural terms is introducing majority voting in UN fora to prevent a few recalcitrant nations from blocking the will of the vast majority.

There have been many times in the past when just one or two countries held up progress in UN processes such as the climate change convention - and the same issue is now being raised within the EU, where last week Poland on its own managed to block the setting of tougher carbon emission targets.

On the other hand, some countries' protests clearly matter more than others.

Whereas the 2007 UN climate summit in Bali hinged on whether the US would block the will of every other country on the planet - it eventually chose not to - the objections of Bolivia at the equivalent meeting in 2010 were basically ignored by everyone else, who decided in that case that a consensus could leave one nation out.

One suspects this particular reform would be tough to push through; and it isn't the only one.

As so often in environmental and sustainability circles, the plan contains no shortage of ideas on what should be done, and why, and by when.

The politics of how to make it all happen are a different matter.

In this case, how to get economic bodies to put Rio+20 notions at the centre of their decision-making, how to persuade governments to give up their right of veto, how to project the concerns of citizens through the blockage of bureaucracy - these aren't in the prescription.

And that "how?" issue is the toughest part of making a real transition.