UN Conference on Sustainable Development: highlights of the Rio+20 final document

At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (June 2012), binding new international agreements were not agreed upon, which was disappointing. Nevertheless, the final document is worth summarising in order to highlight the most important common views of the world´s governments as regards sustainable development and the marine environment. Luckily, in the management of seas and oceans important progress was achieved. The following is a summary – with special reference to coasts, seas and oceansof  the final document “The Future We Want”:

The document states that for sound development in general, holistic, integrated and sustainable management of natural resources needs to be promoted. At the same time, economic, social and human development should be supported.  Also, the international community is asked to move the sustainable development agenda forward, through the achievement of internationally agreed goals including the existing Millennium Development Goals. Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is mentioned as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The achievements of the meeting were minor. Only in the “seas and oceans” action area important progress was achieved. Aerial photo of Rio (c) 2012 copyright Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants recognise the key role that improving energy efficiency plays. This includes the increasing share of renewable energy and cleaner, more energy-efficient technologies. Climate change as a persistent crisis is acknowledged: the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective international response. Naturally, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is needed. Also the related urgent needs of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are mentioned in the final document.

The need for effective, transparent, accountable and democratic natural resources´ management institutions is mentioned in the document. So is the need for contributions towards sustainable development by both the public/private sectors and the scientific/technological communities. We are also reminded of the important role of citizens at the grass-root level, e.g. fishers, in the development of production activities which are environmentally more sound. The valuable contributions by  NGOs in promoting sustainable development are acknowledged.

The establishment of UNEP as a permanent UN organisation (instead of being a non-permanent programme) was not achieved, but it was decided that UNEP would be strengthened. In addition, the participants decided to establish an intergovernmental high-level political forum replacing the current UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

In the final document, the participating states recognise the severity of global biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems: this underlines the importance of biodiversity conservation, enhancing habitat connectivity and building ecosystem resilience.

In the Oceans and Seas chapter of The Future We Want, important progress can be observed. To begin with, the participating states commit to protect and restore the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, and to maintain their biodiversity for the conservation / sustainable use by the present and future generations. Furthermore, the participants agree to apply an ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle in marine management.

The Rio conference delegations recognise the importance of UNCLOS (Law of the Sea) in advancing sustainable development and they emphasise the need for cooperation in marine scientific research. The states also support the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment (established under the UN General Assembly) and look forward to the completion of its first global integrated assessment by 2014.

In Rio de Janeiro, the participating states supported the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment. The states look forward to the completion of the first global integrated assessment by 2014. The marine image was taken off Callao, Peru, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

In the seas and oceans chapter, the importance of the conservation / sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction is recognised. Building on the work of an international working group (and before the end of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly) the Rio participants commit to address this issue on an urgent basis.

The states also note with concern that the health of the oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution. The final document mentions marine debris, plastic, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and nitrogen-based compounds. The sources mentioned include marine and land-based sources, including shipping and land runoff. The participants commit to take action to reduce the incidence and impacts of such pollution on marine ecosystems. The relevant measures would include implementation of IMO conventions and the follow-up of relevant initiatives such as the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities. With the help of scientific assessments, the states further commit to take action to significantly reduce marine debris by 2025.

In the seas and oceans chapter the participants note the significant threat which alien invasive species pose to marine ecosystems, and commit to implement measures to prevent their introduction. The management of the adverse environmental impacts will be improved including those alien species adopted in the framework of IMO.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion are noted as serious threats for many coastal regions and islands particularly in developing countries. International action to address these challenges is called for in the final document.

The participating states also call for support to initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources. They reiterate the need to work collectively to prevent further ocean acidification, as well as to enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems and of the communities whose livelihoods depend on them. The importance of marine scientific research, monitoring and observation of ocean acidification and of particularly vulnerable ecosystems through international cooperation are mentioned.

In the Rio final document the participating states stress their concern about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization. They recall the decisions related to ocean fertilization adopted by the relevant intergovernmental bodies, and decide to continue addressing ocean fertilization with utmost caution. The precautionary approach will be applied.

In Rio the participating states promised to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis. The photo of the fishing vessel is from the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants commit, on an urgent basis, to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. The foreseen time frame is “the shortest time feasible”. To achieve this, the states commit to urgently develop and implement science-based management plans. Fisheries reduction and suspension are listed as management methods. The importance of by-catch reduction and the control of destructive fishing practices are mentioned as well as the importance of impact assessments.

Relating to UNCLOS, the Rio delegations urge states to fully implement the 1995 Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. Furthermore, all States are called upon to implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the corresponding FAO International Plans of Action and technical guidelines.

The final document acknowledges that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing deprives many countries of a crucial natural resource and remains a persistent threat to their sustainable development. A recommitment to eliminate IUU fishing is presented. Reference is made to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which aims at preventing and combating these practices in the following ways: a) by implementing national and regional action plans in accordance with FAO’s international IUU combat plan, b) by identifying vessels engaged in IUU fishing, c) by depriving offenders of the benefits accruing from IUU fishing, and d) by cooperating with developing countries to systematically identify needs and build capacity (monitoring, control, surveillance, compliance and enforcement systems).

The Rio delegations recognise the need for transparency and accountability in fisheries management by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). The efforts already made by those RFMOs that have undertaken independent performance reviews are recognised. A call is presented on all RFMOs to regularly undertake such reviews, publish the results and implement the recommendations.

Furthermore, the Rio final document reaffirms the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation as to elimination of subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and overcapacity, mentioning the importance of this sector to developing countries. Reference is made to the WTO Doha Development Agenda and the Hong Kong Ministerial mandates for more vigorous control of fisheries subsidies. Prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing is mentioned as a control measure. States are also encouraged to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, to refrain from introducing new such subsidies and to refrain from extending or enhancing existing subsidies.

A commitment to ensure access to fisheries and corresponding markets by fishers (subsistence, small-scale, artisanal) and women fish workers and indigenous peoples is also presented, highlighting the needs of these communities in developing countries and small island developing states.

The importance of coral reef conservation and marine protected areas is highlighted in the final document of the Rio conference on sustainable development. Image from a Red Sea coral reef in Egypt, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

As to coral reefs and mangroves, the Rio delegations recognise the significant economic, social and environmental contributions of coral reefs, in particular to islands and other coastal states, as well as the significant vulnerability of the reefs and mangroves to impacts including from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, destructive fishing practices and pollution. Support for international cooperation is expressed in order to conserve coral reef and mangrove ecosystems and to realise their social, economic and environmental benefits. Facilitation of technical collaboration and voluntary information sharing are mentioned as supporting measures. Surprisingly, sea grass beds are not separately mentioned in the Rio final document. (The importance of healthy sea grass beds as carbon sinks in fighting global climate change has recently been acknowledged by the marine science research community).

In the seas and oceans chapter of The Future We Want, the delegations reaffirm the importance of area-based conservation measures, including marine protected areas, consistent with international law and based on best available scientific information. The participants note decision X/2 of the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, that by 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are to be conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Finally, it may be considered surprising that the importance of managing the sea-land interface as a special area was not mentioned in The Future We Want. As the coastal zone is an area of many opportunities, user conflicts, resource degradation and lost opportunities, it would have been natural to say something in the Rio final document about the need for integrated coastal zone management.

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