Sustainability Evaluation and Reporting

December 14, 2011 • Climate Change & Mitigation, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Ed Barry for this proposed insertion for the first draft of the document being prepared for the Earth Summit in Rio next June.

Sustainability Evaluation and Reporting (SER)

Recommendation to fully incorporate SER into the “Zero Draft” of the Secretary General’s Compilation Document for Rio 2012, and for its incorporation into the final ‘plan of action’ at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

Background: The nations of the world have already clearly acknowledged and endorsed our common responsibility to operate human civilization in harmony with the natural environment, so as to maximize human development potential, advance human well-being, and preserve all life on planet Earth.  More specifically, as provided in Agenda 21, the relationships between population size, human societal activity, and environmental resources and between environmental degradation and the components of demographic change should be analyzed.[1] Moreover, assessments should be made of national population carrying capacities in the context of satisfaction of human needs, sustainable development and human rights, and special attention should be given to critical resources, such as water and land, and environmental factors, such as ecosystem health and biodiversity.[2]

In developing the final plan of action for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, it’s important to reaffirm and build upon Agenda 21 by explicitly recognizing that:

1.      All life on planet Earth is dependent on a highly complex and ubiquitous set of biological and geophysical resource systems;

2.      Human life and all of our economic and societal activities require and rely on the goods and services of Earth’s natural resource systems;

3.      Economic and social development are dependent on adequate and healthy resource systems;

4.      Human civilization for all practical purposes, must operate within the limits of one planet Earth (a closed system with finite resources);

5.      A sustainable system is one that can continue to operate indefinitely without degrading the biophysical basis of its own existence;

6.      Sustainability (or resource system integrity) can be measured by assessing the total amount of biophysical resource demands placed upon a system, and comparing these demands to the system’s total capacity to supply needed resources;

7.      Scientifically based accounting methodologies are available to do sustainability assessments as described in item 7 above;

8.      Sustainability evaluation methodologies [also referred to as resource macro-balance assessments] can be used to demonstrate unsustainable behavior long before such behavior causes severe and potentially irreparable damage to planetary resource systems;

9.      Sizable human population increases and growth in the global economy over the past few decades have caused humanity’s resource demands to exceed planetary natural resource limits.  The world is now in a state of natural resource overshoot, an unstable drawdown condition that can lead to economic and societal breakdown;

10.  Global warming, climate change, peak oil, fresh water shortages, toxicity increases in the global food chain, rapid biodiversity loss, coral reef degradation, and deforestation are all tangible signs that we are exceeding regional and global resource limits;

11.  Human over-conscription (overshoot) of global resources, and the resulting endangerment to the health and well-being of many global resource systems, is a significant emerging issue that the world must address;

12.  Earthly resources are, to a large extent, managed and controlled by individual sovereign nations.  However, demands on resource goods and services can easily transcend national boundaries through international commerce and unequal exploitation of the global ‘commons’; and

13.  Shortages of resources, degradation of global resource systems, and other deleterious conditions associated with resource overshoot such as global warming and climate change, pose a threat to global harmony, equity, and security,

Recognizing these fundamental tenets, and desiring to promote global equity, maximize global security, preserve global resource systems,  and  protect the ability of future generations to adequately meet their needs, the Conference and the attending countries should:

1.      Embrace the broad concept of sustainability (balanced living within our resource means) and commit to a program of action which defines, and ultimately will result in, continuous sustainability [resource macro-balance] improvement;

2.      Acknowledge that the preservation of global resources and resource systems is the responsibility of individual nations, as well as all nations of the global community working together;

3.      Declare that resource preservation and sound conservation practices are in the best interests of everyone in the world community;

4.      Participate in international dialogs and initiatives that advance scientific, social, and political understanding of resource preservation issues;

5.      Support the adoption of sustainability evaluation processes [resource macro-balance assessments] at the country level, and periodically determine our national resource sustainability position in accordance with the plan of action contained herein.

6.      Commit to the public disclosure of national sustainability evaluations and the sharing of them with the United Nations Environment Programme, in accordance with the plan of action.

7.      Encourage participating countries to adopt and commence work on a national strategic planning process that will ultimately define and advance viable alternative future sustainable living scenarios.

8.      Call upon the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to support national sustainability evaluation and reporting.

Proposed Plan of Action

Basis for action –

1.0  The global economy and total scale of human societal activity on the planet is not sustainable at current levels of population and consumption, and the global issue of resource over-use is becoming more severe with time.  Our global ‘business as usual’ is leading us on a collision course with nature and undermining the resource assets of the planet that are foundationally necessary for social and economic development.  The fundamental shift that has occurred in our relationship with the natural world is a significant emerging issue that the world must address.

2.0  The ongoing (and accelerating) human over-conscription of resources, sometimes referred to as ecological overshoot – but more generally referred to as resource overshoot  – now jeopardizes the long-term viability of many earthly resource systems.  As these overshoot threats compound in scale and duration, we place human well-being (for both current and future generations) in jeopardy.

3.0  In response to this emerging issue, and to the threat it represents, humanity must now pay close attention to the resource sustainability of our total economic and societal activities.  We must begin to monitor our combined activities and to take appropriate steps to ensure that they are conducted within the finite limits of planetary resource capacity.  To ensure a truly sustainable future for the world, we must address the total biological and geo-physical balance between what humans and other species demand of nature and what nature can provide.  Creating and preserving an appropriate total resource demand vs. supply balance is a critical requirement of sustainability and the long-term viability of the planet.

Objectives –

1.0  Make total resource sustainability central to our current and future thinking. Such a plan will require both national and international action and a new approach to international environmental governance.

2.0  Develop an internationally recognized process for conducting periodic sustainability assessments at the national governance level that would commit participating countries to:

2.1  Periodically reviewing their bio-physical resource demands;

2.2  Comparing  these demands with their resource capacities; and

2.3  Developing future sustainable living scenarios for their countries which ultimately bring their resource demands into balance with their resource capacities.

Activities –

1.0  National Action:  Each nation must individually embrace the broad concept of sustainability (living within our means) and commit to a program of action which results in continuous macro-balance improvement.  This commitment will require a robust scientifically-based sustainability planning effort, and for most countries this will mean creating a new national sustainability institution, or at least a new sustainability focus within an existing institution.  It will require new evaluation processes, periodic reporting, and a commitment to adopting national policies that promote self-sufficiency within the natural resource limits of each respective sovereign territory.

1.1. Each nation, within the bounds of international law and human rights, enjoys full national sovereignty, knows its own societal and cultural needs, and has the right to determine its own unique path toward sustainability.  Consequently it is at the aggregated level of national governance that most of the sustainability work must be done.

1.2 Each nation, with coordinating assistance from the new International Sustainability Program (ISP), should commit to annually evaluating its national resource sustainability position, and reporting the results of these evaluations to its citizens, policy makers, and to the ISP.

2.0  International Sustainability Program (ISP): A new international sustainability focus is required[3] to accomplish the following:

2.1 Support of national sustainability efforts – Nations will require scientific, policy, and administrative support to evaluate, report progress, and move in the direction of macro-biophysical sustainability within their respective sovereign entities.  An international sustainability institution is needed to provide scientific as well as policy guidance in support of these national sustainability efforts, and to provide universally acceptable sustainability standards.

2.2 Allocation of international resources – Certain resources are spatially outside of national boundaries and are considered part of the global commons, most notably ocean resources including international fisheries and the ocean’s carbon sequestration capacity.[1] All such international resources must be allocated to individual sovereign states so that they are realistically included in national sustainability plans and goal setting.  If international resources are allocated in this manner, then national sustainability plans can be aggregated to produce a viable global sustainability scenario.

2.3 Global management of waste loadings – Toxic waste loadings cannot be managed within a national ‘balance with nature’ framework for a number of reasons.  First, the long term capacity of the biosphere (along with the lithosphere) to assimilate toxic and other difficult anthropogenic waste streams is not clearly understood.  Second, many (if not most) toxic wastes migrate beyond national boundaries, and we are not able to accurately account for this migration.  Third, in order to manage by balancing it is essential that we are able to reasonably calculate an anthropogenic demand (human waste output), and compare it to the assimilation capacity of natural ecosystems.  The former we can probably do by reporting and aggregating point source emissions, but the latter is virtually impossible.  We simply do not know, and cannot calculate with the required degree of precision, nature’s capacity to assimilate our toxic waste loadings. These realities make it clear that we must regulate toxic wastes at the international level and address the threats posed by them in much the same way that we dealt with threats to the world’s ozone layer, and in a manner consistent with the precautionary principal for the long-term benefit of all nations.  [Note: This ISP function applies for persistent toxic wastes and does not apply to humanity’s largest non-aqueous waste stream: CO2.  CO2 emissions can be managed by individual nations within a renewable resources ‘balancing framework,’ because we are able to calculate CO2 demand (by aggregating point source emissions) and also calculate the carbon sequestration capacity for individual sovereign territories.]

2.4 International sustainability goal setting – Although each sovereign country will independently chart its own course toward the goal of national macro-sustainability, and achieve progress along its respective path (see section 2.1. above), progress for the world as a whole may be insufficient to reasonably ensure the future viability of global ecosystems (e.g. excessive planetary warming or ocean degradation).  Therefore sustainability goal setting must also be done at the global level.  The international sustainability institution must solicit appropriate scientific advice, and periodically develop sustainability goals and targets.  This international body will also be responsible for overseeing international efforts or negotiations aimed at encouraging or facilitating international action on sustainability.

2.5 Global sustainability monitoring – Global sustainability can best be evaluated and achieved via aggregation of national sustainability efforts.  The international sustainability institution, as an international watchdog, must monitor and ensure progress of individual national efforts, and report progress (or non-compliance) to appropriate international forums.

2.6 Forum for international resource agreements – Many nations will not be able to achieve balanced resource plans within the natural resource constraints of their sovereign territories.  Therefore they will need, at least for some period of time, to acquire legitimate rights to resources from other nations.  The international sustainability governance function should provide a forum for the negotiation of such resource treaties and agreements, and promote transparent international dialog about global resource demands, capacities, and sustainability trends.

The new international sustainability administrative focus (the ISP) will be initially formed and made operational by the end of 2012.  UNEP will be the lead agency for the creation of the ISP.

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[1]The majority of CO2 sequestration capacity is not in this category because the predominant sequestration mechanisms are land-based, and therefore controlled by the actions of sovereign governments.

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[1] Agenda 21, Section 5.3

[2] Agenda 21, Section 5.23

[3] This focus might be administered within the existing UNEP structure, or by a new global governance agency.

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