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The voice of the scientists at Rio+20

How Brazilian research can contribute to the Conference’s decisions on Sustainable Development


Researchers from the State of São Paulo have begun to mobilize in order to influence the debates to be held at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which will bring heads of state and representatives from hundreds of countries to Rio de Janeiro between June 20and 22. Scientists from the fields of biodiversity, renewable energy sources and climate change, involved in research projects financed by FAPESP, are gathering at a workshop in São Paulo, on March 6 and 7, to discuss the topics that will be on the agenda at Rio+20 from the perspective of the most advanced research carried out in the country. Rio+20 is an attempt to update the sustainable development commitments made by countries at the historic Rio-92 Conference, 20 years ago –the main innovation being the proposal of moving forward with the concept of the green economy, which is a set of strategies for running the economy with less environmental impact, based on the progress of renewable energy sources, efficient consumption of energy and natural resources and the sustainable use of biodiversity services and products.

At the end of the workshop, there will be a presentation of the results of a questionnaire that was forwarded to all the researchers on projects financed by FAPESP’s three programs, with their opinion about the Rio+20 themes. “This document will be forwarded to the conference committee as a contribution from the São Paulo State scientists to the debate,” says Glaucia Souza, a professor at USP’s Institute of Chemistry and one of the coordinators of FAPESP’s Bioenergy Research Program (Bioen). The workshop will be the first occasion on which researchers from FAPESP’s three main research programs (Bioen, Biota/São Paulo biodiversity program and PFPMCG/Global Climate Change program) take part in a joint event to discuss the interfaces of their research.

Bioenergy’s turn
The commitment of São Paulo universities and research institutes to Rio+20 is a natural result of the work they have been doing. “With support from FAPESP, researchers from a variety of disciplines have made progress in studies that tackle the pillars of sustainability and that are key questions for the conference, such as the protection of biodiversity, the impact of global climate change and the sustainability of agriculture,” declares Reynaldo Victoria, a professor at the Nuclear Energy Center for Agriculture (Cena) at the University of São Paulo Luiz de Queiroz campus in Piracicaba. He is the executive coordinator of PFPMCG (FAPESP’s Research Program on Global Climate Change). The program was set up in 2008 and provides funding for more than 50 research projects on themes that include the natural, biological and social sciences and range from the effects of global warming on rainfall and the distribution of gases in the atmosphere to the impact of burning down the forests. Other themes include the influence of agricultural management practices on carbon dioxide emissions from the soil in sugarcane plantations, or the vulnerability of municipalities on the north coast of São Paulo state to climate change, among other issues.

Reynaldo Victoria highlights PFPMCG’s ambition to create a Brazilian climate model, a computing system capable of carrying out sophisticated simulations of weather phenomena. “For science to supply society with reliable information, it’s essential that we have a model that is not just a segment of those that exist in other countries, but one that takes into account regional characteristics and data,” explains the researcher. “The purchase of Inpe’s new supercomputer, sponsored by FAPESP and the Ministry of Science and Technology, is an important step toward achieving this goal. Investments in research projects in various areas, such as the Amazon region, the Pantanal and the South Atlantic, are already producing data to feed this model,” says Reynaldo Victoria. There are doubts about future of the Amazon region, notes the researcher, which science has not yet managed to resolve and which interests the entire world. “There are studies that point to the risk of the forest becoming a savanna while there are others that suggest the opposite. There are also differences regarding the amount of biomass that the Amazon region houses. We’re trying to answer questions of this type.”

Another contribution with enough energy to spur the debates of Rio+20 is linked to the sustainable production of bio-fuels. “FAPESP has financed research to increase ethanol production per hectare of sugarcane. The current level of output is 75 tons per hectare, but recent studies show that potentially more than 300 tons can be produced per hectare and the goal of the researchers is to achieve a large rise in production without increasing the agricultural area and competing with the production of foodstuffs,” states Reynaldo Victoria, referring to one of the Bioen studies about the impact of genetic improvements and new technologies on Brazilian production.

The physicist José Goldemberg, president of USP between 1986 and 1990 and Special Secretary for the Environment when Brazil hosted Rio-92, believes that the conference could lead to progress in terms of countries’ commitment to adopting renewable energy sources. “There is an article in the preliminary document of the conference that’s interesting for Brazil. It proposes that the percentage of the world’s energy from renewable sources should be doubled by 2030. Few people talk about it, but biomass already supplies the world with more energy than nuclear power stations. The example of Brazilian ethanol is inspirational. Current production could be multiplied tenfold without negatively affecting food production,” says Goldemberg, who will give a seminar at the workshop on this theme.

018-025_CAPA_Rio+20_193-1CAccording to Glaucia Souza, from the Bioen program, one of the program’s five divisions is especially tailored to contribute to Rio+20, as it deals with the social and economic impact of a society based on energy from biomass. “We have groups of researchers studying economic models that are capable of evaluating the change in land usage caused by large-scale biofuel production. There are also studies about the economic bottlenecks of biofuel production, agro ecological mapping and the impact on biodiversity, to give a few examples,” she says. New knowledge apart, she stresses the potential of biofuel for fighting poverty, one of the mottos of Rio+20. “Sugarcane contributes to rural development, but agriculture still doesn’t produce much profit for the producers. Biofuel production could add value to agribusiness, for instance, allowing the sector to generate its own energy and sell the excess, thus contributing to regional development and to fighting poverty,” she adds.

There is also strong inclination among the researchers of the Biota-FAPESP program, which since 1999 has been promoting studies about the biodiversity of the State of São Paulo, to contribute to the conference in Rio. For example, Biota’s ability to convert knowledge into public policies is recognized – scientific data collected by the program began to guide the legislation that regulates the cutting and suppression of native vegetation in São Paulo State. Its experience in producing inventories about biodiversity and offering information on public databases may also be important. Carlos Joly, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), coordinator of the Biota-FAPESP and Director of Thematic Research and Programs of the MCTI – Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, highlights other Brazilian advances that have been driven by scientific research.

“In addition to all our technology in ethanol production, which has reduced the dependence on fossil fuels and is nowadays a paradigm even for trucks and buses in Brazil, we have also made progress in biodiesel, using a model that can be employed in other regions, such as Africa and Central America. We have examples to offer in waste management: although there are still only a few, we have landfills that have been turned into gas production areas. It is true that we waste gas in petroleum exploration areas. The impact from burning gas with platform flares is high and we don’t have the technology to resolve this,” he says by way of illustration.

018-025_CAPA_Rio+20_193-2Among those participating in the workshop of the three FAPESP programs there will be diplomats, authorities and two foreign scientists. The biologist Edward O. Wilson, from Harvard University, who was one of the pioneers in warning about the mass extinction of species in the twentieth century, will hold a videoconference. The biologist Thomas Lovejoy, from George Mason University, will talk about the science of biodiversity in the context of Rio+20; in fact, it was he who coined the term biodiversity in the 1980s (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue 171).

The workshop is the starting point of participation by scientists, who will have other opportunities to speak up before Rio+20. The Conference ‘Planet under Pressure’ will take place in London in March and will bring together scientists, businessmen, authorities and representatives of non-governmental organizations to provide input for Rio+20; 40% of the 6.8 thousand researchers who submitted papers to the event’s scientific committee are from the developing world.

Brazil contributed with 343 papers. Among the so-called Brics group, Brazil was only behind India (with 531 papers), but ahead of China (123), South Africa (63) and Russia (50). The United Kingdom was at the top of the list, with 907 papers. “Among the Brazilian papers that were accepted, there are a number of projects funded by FAPESP in the areas of renewable energy, socio-environmental dynamics, climate and meteorology,” says Patrícia Pinho, who is a researcher at Inpe and a scientific coordinator for the office of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), one of the organizers of the London conference. During the Planet under Pressure conference, the Belmont Forum, a high-level group that brings together the main entities in the world that fund research into the global changes, will call upon researchers of various nationalities and from various disciplines to come up with proposals on two key themes: water safety and coastal vulnerability. “Researchers from the State of São Paulo could take part in this international call,” says Reynaldo Victoria. “FAPESP, which is a member of the Belmont Forum, will invest € 2 million in this call, to be used for studies undertaken in Brazil,” he states.

Negotiations before Rio+20 will play a decisive role. The summit itself will be preceded by the final preparatory conference, to be held between June 13 and 15. Immediately after this, from June 16 to 19, there will be an event organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Dialogues on Sustainable Development. In total, the conference and the preparatory activities will cover 10 days, just slightly less than the 12-day schedule of Rio-92, which was held from June 3 to 14 in 1992. “As it is an infrequent and ambitious event, things can come out of the conference whose importance we may overlook at the time they happen,” explained Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago, Brazil’s chief negotiator for Rio+20, to the newspaper Valor Econômico. “But because these conferences work with the long-term picture, there’s also a huge amount of uncertainty. There are processes that get stuck in the middle and there are others that inspire an entire generation.”

018-025_CAPA_Rio+20_193-3Rio-92 spawned a series of commitments that have shaped the international negotiations since then, such as the conventions on climate and biodiversity, in addition to Agenda 21 and the Principles of Rio, tools that helped to organize actions by governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations in their search for solutions to environmental problems. However, the scope of Rio+20 is more limited. It should restate principles but in terms of new items, it may only produce an adjustment of the structure of the United Nations, creating an agency that specializes in the environment to replace the United Nations Environment Program (Pnuma) – even so, there is no consensus about this. The European countries, together with a few African ones, are arguing in favor of the creation of this agency. The United States is against the idea. “Brazil has shown a certain reluctance, largely because it holds that the meeting should be based on three main pillars, the environmental one, the economic one and the social one, believing therefore that such an organization would only strengthen the first of these,” declares the ambassador and former Minister of the Environment Rubens Ricupero.

Good intentions
The great thing about Rio+20 is that it will bring together heads of state, rather than just their representatives, to discuss major issues. “This is not a conference of diplomats and ministers defending their countries’ interests, as is the case in conferences on climate and biodiversity that are held every year and that make slow progress. This is a window of opportunity for statesmen, who will be able to make general commitments about the planet’s future,” states Carlos Nobre, a climatologist at Inpe and secretary of the MCTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation) for Research and Development Policies and Programs and one of the coordinators of FAPESP’s Program of Research into Global Climate Change.

The conference’s first draft document, published two months ago, has 128 articles and is lavish in its good intentions and calls for sustainable practices, but has been criticized for proposing little that is of any practical use. “The question is not the conference, but the day after. You need to get commitments that make the conference result in action,” says the physicist José Goldemberg. Produced by a UN commission involving member-states, international agencies, non-governmental organizations and political groups, the so-called “zero draft” combines generic commitments, without establishing targets – but should be replaced by a new version in March, after incorporating new suggestions from the countries. “The way it is right now, the document is similar to that of Rio+10, held in Johannesburg in 2002, which had little impact outside of diplomatic circles,” comments Carlos Joly.

018-025_CAPA_Rio+20_193-4The chances of the conference being a success depend largely on the ability of the preparatory meetings to achieve consensus about the indicators to be used for fixing targets. “The conference could become a significant meeting if it overcomes the rhetoric and moves on to measures,” declares Jacques Marcovitch, the president of the University of São Paulo between 1997 and 2001. He compares the challenge of Rio+20 to that faced in the year 2000 by the UN when defining the so-called “objectives of the millennium,” a set of eight targets adopted by 191 signatory countries concerning the eradication of poverty, access to education, and fighting disease, among other areas. “After a very long period of indecision, a consensus was reached about the measures that would be used and progress was made in terms of amplifying the bases of human development,” states Marcovitch. Among the measures, he highlights indicators of energy efficiency, such as use of energy per percent of economic growth, use of energy in the private sector by the results achieved, water usage, and waste production. “What I’m referring to here is a set of indicators that relate inputs to results,” he explains.

Marcovitch coordinated the study Economia da mudança do clima no Brasil: custos e oportunidades [The economics of climate change in Brazil: costs and opportunities] that was carried out by a consortium of institutions and identified the main areas where the Brazilian economy and Brazilian society are vulnerable to climate change. He will give a seminar at the workshop relating the study to the challenges faced by Rio+20. Carlos Joly, who is a coordinator for Biota, also stresses the need to determine measures, which in the field of biodiversity should refer to an acceptable level of protected areas, such as parks and reserves, preserved habitats, connectivity in fragmented habitats and protection for endemic species, among others. The zero document talks generically about the establishment of indicators and delegates the task of defining them over the course of the next three years to a working group.

According to Joly, the very concept of a green economy should be better defined by the conference. “There is the need for a more well-rounded, more precise definition of what a green economy consists of and what it encompasses, because it’s one of the main themes,” he says. Pnuma, the United Nation’s main global authority on the environment, defines a green economy as one that “results in improvements of the well-being of mankind and social equality, while also significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological privation. In other words, a green economy can be seen as one that has low carbon emissions, which is efficient in its use of resources and that is socially inclusive.” This would not replace the concept of sustainable development, but would be a way to achieve it in the near future.

018-025_CAPA_Rio+20_193-5However, there is skepticism about the green economy’s potential to guarantee a sustainable future. “Innovations to improve efficiency in the use of resources are essential. However, this is already occurring. And despite these innovations and the advances that they have generated, use of resources and the pressure on ecosystems has not decreased, but has actually increased,” declares Ricardo Abramovay, a professor at USP’s School of Economics and Administration (FEA). He also comments that a decoupling has arisen between production growth and the use of materials and energy. “On average it took 26% fewer material resources to produce each unit of global GDP in 2002 than it did in 1980,” he says.

However, gains in efficiency have been canceled out by the growth of global GDP. “Despite the relative decline, absolute consumption of materials has increased 36%. Up to 2020, the trend is for the increase in productivity per product unit to be offset by a rise of almost 50% in the consumption of materials, with a devastating impact on the climate and ecosystems,” he states. “And at the very root of this increase in consumption there is the issue of inequality, a theme that is absent from Rio+20. No amount of technical progress can balance the books while there’s so much inequality of access to and consumption of resources.”

The elasticity of the concept can give rise to differences between the developed and developing worlds. The issue of the transfer of technology is one of the points of disagreement. “The green economy depends on the creation of new technologies. The developing countries want clear mechanisms that enable the sharing or transfer of these technologies, but that is not the focus of the rich countries, who are more worried about environmental issues and the protection of intellectual property,” says Carlos Joly. “The poorer countries are worried that the definition of parameters for the green economy will be used as a justification for protectionist measures, with the rich countries saying: I’m not going to buy your product because your economy isn’t green,” he explains. The zero document proposes that the green economy should not be used to raise commercial barriers.

There are no guarantees that the scientists will be able to exert a decisive influence on the conference’s direction. Despite the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which guarantees that global warming is dangerous, the UN’s last climate conference, held in Durban, opted to postpone implementing measures that had already been considered necessary (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue 191). “In times of economic crisis, the authorities tend to take care of the most serious social problems and leave the rest for later,” says José Goldemberg. Carlos Nobre, of Inpe, remembers the difficulties that the LBA experiment (a research program in the Amazon region) faced to get its results turned into policies.

“We began to reflect on the reasons why the scientific work produced was unable to influence the reduction of deforestation. Later on, when deforestation decreased, we were unable to conclude that it was as a result of the program or of the work of some scientists,” he explains. Ambassador Rubens Ricupero believes that scientists have a major influence on the environmental debate. “This question only appeared on the international agenda and became something that people were aware of in the early 1970s and this was due almost exclusively to the actions of scientists,” he comments.

Way ahead for the Amazon region
According to Carlos Nobre, one of the Brazilian science sector’s main contributions involves the ability to monitor deforestation with satellites, although this is more of a technical than a scientific advance. “The decrease in deforestation has helped give Brazil the credibility to host the conference,” recalling that Rio+10, which took place in 2002, was held in Johannesburg rather than here. He draws attention to the fact that science has so far been unable to indicate a path for the Amazon region to combine the wealth of the natural resources harmoniously and enable the creation of income opportunities based on the ecosystem’s services.

In the field of agriculture, observes Nobre, the green economy will also require profound changes, to make it more efficient in terms of water and energy use. “Paradoxically, Brazil could achieve sustainable agriculture quite easily, but it has to want to do so,” he says, citing the example of açaí, the Amazon region fruit that has become a global product over the last five years, the trade of which now involves more money than the timber business. “There was no strategy for this. Açaí carved out a global market niche, but science played no role whatsoever in making this happen.” Nobre stresses that Brazil is the country with the greatest biomass, wind and solar energy potential. As a result, it could easily transform its model of energy use, something that other countries will find it harder to do. “We are closer, but other countries have moved into the lead in the transition. They are mobilizing themselves to a greater extent,” he states. “We can’t rest on our laurels. Who knows whether by 2030 we will have turned into the most sustainable, cleanest tropical country. For this to happen, the scientific community has to believe in it now.”