Through the Rio+20 outcome document, governments explicitly recognize, for the first time, that natural capital is the essential core element of sustainable development, and that healthy ecosystems must be the foundation of human well-being.
Over 190 countries gathered for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20). They agreed that the recent global crisis shows that old-fashioned views about development are misleading, and it is now time to rethink the very foundations of how we consider development, well-being and wealth. Over the past four decades, the world has realized that our ecosystems and biodiversity are under serious pressure.
These concerns are reflected particularly in points 39 and 40 of the outcome document, “The Future We Want”: “We recognize that planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home …, and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development. We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature.” “We call for holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development that will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.”
This statement shows that world leaders believe that the rights of nature must be preserved while balancing the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations for sustainable development. Many NGOs were greatly disappointed by the lack of specific commitments, timetables, definitions or processes included in the outcome document. However, for the first time, governments explicitly recognized that natural capital (biodiversity and ecosystem services) is the essential core element of sustainable development, and that healthy ecosystems must be the foundation of human well-being. This is an extraordinary and transformative change in mindset, as it finally moves the environment from a marginal issue to a central component of future development strategies. This opens a window of opportunity to transition towards a sustainable development pathway by incorporating the multiple values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into policy and management decisions. It will involve creating green economies based on inclusive wealth which take account of all forms of capital including natural, social and human, as well as financial and manufactured, and where intergenerational well-being increases over time.
This recognition also could provide a basis for the collective action with the business sector needed to achieve an urgent and significant shift in addressing biodiversity loss and ecosystems degradation.
Rio+20 outcomes and the road ahead: Implications for global, regional and national policy for biodiversity and ecosystems
Sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems requires a finely tuned balance between demand and supply. Population increase and changing lifestyle expectations, coupled with ecosystem degradation, are likely to exacerbate what is already an imbalance . If “demand” were replaced by “requirement” (based on equity of resource use), and if biodiversity, ecosystem productivity, regenerative capacity and resilience (“safe limit supply”) were embedded in the “supply” concept, these would be better guidelines by for society. The probability of achieving a balance will be greatly improved by protecting and appropriately managing biodiversity and ecosystem services, coupled with a fundamental shift in societal expectations and behavior that drive “demand.”
A sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems requires a shift in human expectations and aspirations, behavior and immediate resource use. At the same time, the aspirations of the poor need to be respected and supported, especially in cases where impoverished people cause biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation in their struggle for survival using scarce resources.
Excessive resource demands from some countries (which may have relatively healthy ecosystems due to investment and protection) cause degradation in fragile ecosystems beyond their own borders. The impacts of climate change, high levels of water usage for goods production (virtual water), conversion of forest to palm oil, and cattle grazing are examples. This implies that biodiversity and ecosystem protection must balance trade-offs across multiple spatial and economic scales, seeking behavioral change through supportive and enabling policies that redress the current imbalance in trade-offs. Building on the Rio+20 outcomes recognizing the value of natural capital can help lead to input to policy development that leads to the realization of these possibilities.
This could be done through:
- Strengthening ecosystems and biodiversity governance and institutions at local and national levels, including through collaboration between the public and private sectors, civil society and local communities: The need for governance to ensure the maintenance and sustainable use of natural resources is an essential element in the achievement of sustainable development and poverty alleviation objectives.
- Valuing longer-term services provided by biodiversity and ecosystems above short-term gain: Recognizing that one of the main drivers for biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation is economic, and that the past lack of biodiversity and ecosystem valuation has been a market failure. For example, forests are destroyed because it is more profitable in the short term to use land for other purposes, and the environmental cost of water use in goods production is not included in the purchase cost to the consumer.
- Incorporating environmental values into economic models in order to move towards sustainable development: The value of ecosystem services and biodiversity must be considered in planning processes and decision making at all scales, including in the development of strategies for poverty reduction and human development. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)  effort points to the general agreement among scientists that including the value of biodiversity and ecosystems in stock of wealth calculations is a “more meaningful and correct approach” than traditional gross domestic product (GDP) or income calculations, which treat most ecosystem impacts as “externalities.” It is also estimated that in some cases ecosystem services and other non-marketed goods make up to almost 90% of the “total source of livelihood of the poor,” while in national GDP calculations as little as 6% is represented by agriculture, forestry and fisheries. The report emphasizes a tiered approach to recognizing the value of ecosystem services to human communities, demonstrating such values in economic terms, and protecting these values with appropriate mechanisms and tools.
- Designing and implementing change based on high-quality information: Existing biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring and assessment programmes are either incomplete or only partially integrated. The money spent on biodiversity and ecosystems research and monitoring does not reflect the true value of the services they provide to the global economy. More support is required for science to provide the basis for a comprehensive, science-based management approach to guide policy decisions and monitor implementation. Thus, there is need for the formulation and evaluation of economic and policy mechanisms, based on four criteria: long-term environmental effectiveness; equity; cost effectiveness; and institutional compatibility of the policy combinations.
A number of UNEP papers elaborate on these themes:
“Restoring the Natural Foundation to Sustain a Green Economy” focuses on what to do in the transition period of the 20 years after Rio+20. A range of solutions using the Ecosystem Management approach to tackle the many pressures we are facing is highlighted. Considering the fundamental basis for life on Earth, it is inconceivable that we could progress without maintaining the health of Earth’s diverse ecosystems and the biodiversity that underpin them. It thus falls to all people, as individuals, communities, the private sector and representatives of nations, to face up to the challenges ahead and use the best available solutions with commitment and understanding, to ensure a stable transition to a green economy.
“Sustaining forests: Investing in our common future” argues that the use of innovative market and policy mechanisms can internalize the true economic value of forests as productive natural assets that generate goods and services at different levels to promote investment. Mechanisms that combine social, economic and environmental benefits are necessary to encourage sustained investment in forests for the success of a green economy.
“Putting Ecosystem Management in the Vision of Africa’s Development: Towards a Sustainable Green Economy” demonstrates the foundational significance of biodiversity and ecosystems for human wellbeing in the African region. It highlights key policy challenges and opportunities in ecosystem management, and makes recommendations for enhancing capacity of policy makers in the region.
A report launched at Rio+20 by a joint team involving the UN University – International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (UNU-IHDP) and UNEP provides a framework for measuring nations’ productive base and their link to economic development:
“Inclusive Wealth Report 2012”  features an ‘inclusive wealth index’ that measures the wealth of nations including manufactured, human and natural capital, such as ecosystem services, and could serve as a replacement for GDP. The report recommends that countries utilize the Inclusive Wealth Index within their planning and development ministries so that projects and activities are evaluated based on a balanced portfolio approach.
Rio+20 will be regarded as a moment when the global community recognized that prior agreements on climate, biodiversity and poverty alleviation must be implemented with greater urgency. The Conference’s recognition of the value of natural capital provides new affirmation that nature is an essential ingredient if development is to be truly sustainable over the long term. The synergies between objectives need to be better recognized by governments, who must support both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Similarly, businesses and communities need to take advantage of the economic benefits that biodiversity and ecosystems service will bring. Integrating biodiversity in daily decision-making at all levels would benefit from the support and participation of civil society, including media, NGOs and the general public.