A Rio+20 Primer: ‘Ecosystem Services’ and Other Action Words


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I know, it's Friday and in your head you're probably half-way down the nearest trail or river already. But next week, world leaders are meeting in Rio, 20 years after their last meeting there (thus, “Rio+20”) to try to hammer out some meaningful agreements at the United National Conference on Sustainable Development.

If you follow these U.N. conferences, you know that they tend (especially in recent years) to fail to produce binding agreements. And you know that with each failure, the need for nations to collaborate and cooperate to mitigate the effects of climate change becomes more and more dire.

So, with that in mind. Here's a quick primer on some key issues on the agenda, as well as a round-up of Rio+20 news sources worth your attention.

Ecosystem Services
This is some pretty wonky stuff, but it's an important way to bridge the needs and interests of resource extractors and businesses with the needs and interests of ecosystems. “Ecosystem services are the benefits provided by healthy, functioning ecosystems,” explains Linda Hwang, a researcher at business consultancy BSR.

Soil is an example of an ecosystem service because it facilitates agriculture, logging and other resources. And it purifies water. Pollination is an ecosystem service, and without it we couldn't grow many important crops. Forests (specifically wilderness) and oceans provide ecosystem services. You get the idea.

In 2000, the U.N. initiated a major research project that quantified the impact our harvesting of food, water, timber, fiber and fuel have had on ecosystems and biodiversity. Now, businesses are just starting to account for this and to factor the role that soil, pollination and other services play in their operations. Hwang points to the example of beverage companies that are starting to leverage soil's filtration services by planting trees and other vegetation around their water sources.

But there is a lot to be done here, especially with honeybees—without which we would not have apples, almonds, and a long list of other crops—in decline. So, many of the efforts and planned negotiations at Rio+20 are focused on formalizing and creating markets around ecosystem services.

This is so important because it's tied to many other issues, such as poverty, water scarcity, food security and disease. It's increasingly a topic of discussion, even headlining the Mountainfilm Symposium this year, but it's a hugely vexing issue, with major cultural and religious implications.

At the end of the day, of course, it's an environmental issue for all seven billion of us. By 2050, current projections show, there may be 11 billion of us. To address this, a coalition of 105 organizations put out a statement last week that calls for Rio+20 delegates to make population and consumption part of their discussions.

Early versions of the “zero draft,” the document that national leaders will hash out and trying to endorse next week, don't meaningfully address population. But there is some hope that language about the limits of the Earth's systems and our encroachment on “tipping points”—buoyed by a recent scientific report published in Nature—could find its way into next week's agenda.

Guts? Yes. There are a ton of other issues on the table, well beyond those I've listed, but they won't matter unless commitments are made. Delegate countries need to commit to action, otherwise Rio+20 will be just another waste of energy. Earlier this month, Jim Leape, the director general of the World Wildlife Federation, called out the “failures of commitment, failures of process and failures of leadership,” that threaten to squander the potential to get real work done at the conference.

He went on to call out the weakening of language in the multi-nation agreements being drafted in advance of the conference, blaming leaders for using “weasel words:”

“When they gather in Rio, governments must restrain the flow of weasel words that is threatening to emasculate any agreement. They are not helping their people or the planet by 'noting,' 'recognizing,' or 'emphasizing.' We need to see time-bound commitment and action words like 'will,' 'must' and 'deliver.'”

Here's hoping for some action words at Rio+20. Below is a short list of good online sources for Rio+20 news:

This story from BBC News discusses economics in relation to RIO+20 and includes a handy “Rio Summit Jargon Buster” tool.

The Guardian has a Rio+20 homepage.

The UN's Rio+20 website has, of course, all the details. is tracking Rio+20 news related to biodiversity and threatened species.

— Search for #Rio+20 on Twitter, but know that you're opening the flood gates, and not all tweets are in English.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor