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Rio+20: Spelman says government is "ambitious but realistic"

15 June 2012

Our CEO David Nussbaum has put some questions to environment secretary Caroline Spelman about the government's plans for Rio+20...

David Nussbaum: Some people have criticised the lack of political ambition compared to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. How do you see the political landscape as being different? And what have we learnt in the last 20 years that could help make sustainable development a reality?

Caroline Spelman:
We have come a long way since the Earth Summit 20 years ago – and it is important to acknowledge that.

It was a turning point in the way the world looks at the links between the environment, development, and the economy. There has been progress on poverty alleviation, with significant improvements in access to water, education and healthcare in all regions of the world. Many businesses have embraced sustainability issues, and renewable energy has grown substantially.

DN: We need Rio+20 to deliver a step change in addressing the environmental and sustainability challenges for our planet. Where should the momentum for change come from?

CS: I believe what we need is a new paradigm for growth: one that recognises the links between economic growth, environmental constraints and human well-being.

I want to come away from Rio with a tangible outcome which will drive action to put the world on a more sustainable footing, which will alleviate poverty and increase equity.

At Rio, I want global leaders to agree an approach to create new Sustainable Development Goals, and the themes they should cover. The UK will push for SDGs to be focused on food, energy and water, which are clearly relevant to the economy, development and the environment.

Governments need to create a framework but we also need private sector and civil society to drive this forward.

DN: Rio ’92 gave us the Rio Principles on Environment and Development and Agenda 21, as well as creating UN conventions on biodiversity and climate change. It’s unlikely that we’ll see anything as groundbreaking this time – what other benefits are there in engaging in international conferences like this? And how will the UK government make the most of this opportunity?

CS: Rio+20 is an opportunity we must take to put the planet back on the right path towards a green economy, which will be essential for long-term sustainable growth.

There are some areas where I think we can make a real difference – such as Sustainable Development Goals – food security, agriculture and energy, GDP+ and corporate sustainability. Agreement on these would be a big step forward for the international community.

I believe Sustainable Development Goals could be groundbreaking. We have seen the impact of Millennium Development Goals in helping alleviate global poverty. The UK has been working really hard with international parties, including Columbia, to drive forward SDGs.

DN: WWF is calling for better ocean protection at Rio+20, as oceans are vital to ecological balance and our economic health. But despite recommendations for international law on marine protected areas and reducing pressure on fish stocks by cutting overcapacity of fishing fleets globally, we are concerned that these proposals are too little and too late. What will the UK do to lead on this at a domestic level, to show our leadership in the international arena?

CS: The UK is committed to genuine, fundamental reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), to achieve healthy fish stocks, a prosperous fishing industry and a healthy marine environment.

The reform of the CFP provides a crucial opportunity to overcome the structural failings of the current CFP and to tackle the waste of discards, remove ineffective, centralised micro-management and replace inflexible management rules.

The Common Fisheries Policy must provide the necessary changes in fishing activity and behaviour to end discards and I believe the best way to do this is through an approach that addresses the problems, and potential solutions, specific to each fishery.

While we must be ambitious in our aims, it is crucial that the right measures are implemented. Flexibility within the new framework will be key to introducing a range of tailored measures, including obligations to land all catches, that are genuinely effective, enforceable and affordable.

This means working with industry to introduce appropriate measures, including expansion of the ‘catch quota’ approach which has been very successful in reducing discards, as well as improvements in gear selectivity. I believe there should be an emphasis on eliminating unwanted catches in the first instance.

We are pressing ahead with identifying possible Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies will send their formal advice, including impact assessments and project recommendations, to DEFRA in July 2012. We will then formally consult on possible MCZ sites, before designating the first round of sites in summer 2013. Appropriate management measures will be put in place afterwards.

We are also playing a leading role in getting international agreement on the high seas as part our work on areas beyond national jurisdiction.

DN: One big difference between Rio in 1992 and this time around is the leadership and engagement from global companies. One initiative originating from the business sector is for corporate sustainability reporting, where large and listed companies have to report on their sustainability strategy – or explain why they’re not doing so. How will the UK support this initiative being adopted by the Rio+20 conference and then being translated into legislation around the world?

CS: The Deputy Prime Minister and I are determined to get a good outcome on our objectives to mainstream sustainable development into global economies. I have been hugely encouraged by the leadership shown by a number of companies but we will need to see further work from businesses, NGOs and society as a whole to make this a success at Rio and beyond.

Sustainable business practices need to become commonplace – not just for the sake of corporate responsibility, but to protect the bottom line.

We want action to ensure that businesses and governments factor their use of natural resources and their environmental impact into every decision they make - and for this to be transparent.

At Rio, we will push for a commitment from governments to drive uptake of sustainability reporting, and push for major companies to sign up to improve their sustainability performance and reporting. But we do need to recognise that a mandatory framework won’t be negotiable. 

DN: We’ve seen how effective international consensus and coordination can be in tackling global challenges through the international development framework provided by the Millennium Development Goals. One proposal being discussed at Rio+20 is to agree sustainable development goals (SDGs) for the period after 2015 when the MDGs expire. Why do you think it is key to have sustainability at the heart of international development? And what role will the UK have in this, both within the UK and internationally?

SDGs can guide and galvanise domestic and international efforts on issues such as food security, water and sustainable energy. We need to be ambitious, but realistic. A good outcome would be an agreement on a process to develop SDGs, ideally agreement on the themes, and agreement on basic principles. We need a small number of goals that are tightly focused – and also of clear relevance to poverty eradication, environment development and growth.

You can...
Follow our blog posts on the Rio+20 sustainability summit and related issues

Read Caroline Spelman's contribution to WWF's Earth Book - and send us your own story

See Caroline Spelman's Rio+20 diary

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