May 2012

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Dr Chukwumerije Okereke, Reader in Environment and Development and Director of Research in African Environment and Development in the School of Human and Environmental Sciences, writes about the forthcoming Earth Summit and why justice must not be overlooked.

Between June 20 and 22 many world leaders, civil society groups and a bevy of media organisations will gather in Brazil to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (Earth’s Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  3-14 June, 1992. The Rio Summit remains the largest ever global conference on environment and development convened by the United Nations.

The stated objective of Rio+20 is to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development and assess the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development. The two themes for the conference are: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.

There is no doubt that the 1992 Earth Summit was a critical landmark in the history of global environmental governance.  It continues to: (i) serve as an inspiration for humane international co-operation and multilateral environmental diplomacy; (ii) provide impetus for the quest for an ecologically secure and sustainable planet; and (iii) remind everyone of the need for a truly democratic platform for bringing together governments and civil society in the search for solutions to challenges that threaten humans’ common existence.

Rio 1992 produced three main agreements, including the UN Climate Change Convention, the Convention on Biodiversity and the Forest Principles. However, important as these three treaties are, it is probably fair to suggest that the most important outcome of Rio 1992 was the institutionalisation of the concept of sustainable development – the recognition that environmental protection and human welfare are inseparable parts of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation. Despite, however, many conventions and treaties related to sustainable development since 1992, the levels of global poverty and environmental degradation both remain unacceptably high.

It is right then that Rio+20 should focus on assessing the progress that has been made to date and the barriers standing against the achievement of global sustainable development.  As an ethical concept, the intuitive appeal of sustainable development resides in the attention it gives to three key dimensions of justice: (a) justice within and between nations; (b) justice between present and future generations; and (c) justice between human and non-human nature.

Today, distributional justice remains central to any effort to achieving sustainable development as it did 20 years ago. And only careful attention to the three dimensions of justice above can ensure the achievement of a lasting balance between economic, environmental and social dimensions of development which the concept of sustainable development envisages. In fact, I am convinced that the current lack of attention to justice is the most important barrier against the design of effective policies and institutions for achieving national and global sustainable development.  In other words, Gro Harlem Bruntland was right when, in 1987, she declared that:  “It is futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality.”

Green Economy has emerged as the new buzzword in preparation for Rio +20. However it must be noted that emphasis on ‘green economy’ does nothing to affect the centrality of distributional justice in the quest for sustainability.  There will certainly be winners and losers in the transition to a global greener economy, at least in the short term.  Moreover, the move to a green economy would itself entail material costs, and green products and services may generate their own externalities and risks. States, businesses and the civil society gathering in Rio in June must therefore ask how policies and institutions aimed at encouraging a greener economy can better take account of the full range of justice impacts and prospects such a transition would generate. In discussing this matter I suggest that lasting answers can only be achieved in Rio if the following four perspectives are adopted:

  1. Distributional justice should not be seen as merely instrumental but at the heart of sustainable development
  2. Questions of environmental justice must be seen as questions about the mode of wealth creation and appropriation itself rather than as an add-on optional extra. Hence, achieving global sustainable development should be seen to require more radical interrogations of the basic structure of the international society and of patterns of social relations between the poor and rich
  3. The idea of global environmental/planetary citizenship should not been seen as mere moral lectures but one that deserves to be taken as the foundation upon which institutions for environmental governance should be built
  4. The current global economic recession should be seen as an opportunity (not as a hindrance) to tackling unsustainable development and world poverty.

To stand any chance of meeting the aspirations of the majority of the global population that has been clamouring for global sustainable development, international management approaches must strive harder to reflect responsible stewardship and the fact of our common inheritance of the planetary resources. In short for Rio to succeed, the idea of justice must be reinstated at the centre in the quest for new green global economy

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Dr Tijana Blanusa is a RHS Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. Her research interests include the role of urban greening in the mitigation of heat island effect; gardens and microclimate; understanding the physiological responses of ornamental plants to water deficits; and improving the establishment of ornamental plants.

The University of Reading and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) have teamed up at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show (22 – 26 May 2012), to showcase their research into the effect of plants in urban environments.

I work in a very privileged position for a scientist – based at the University and allowed the luxury to follow sometimes quirky questions, but working for a big charitable organisation and hence asking those questions grounded in reality, on behalf of the people we strive to support. For the last few years my work has focused on understanding plants in the urban environment and their contribution to provision of several ‘ecosystem services’*. The aim is to inform and encourage wide and thoughtful use of plants in the domestic and public (urban) context.

Even in the busiest and most populated of Western cities, a surprisingly high proportion of their surface is covered in vegetation (almost up to 50% in some cases). Furthermore, in the UK, almost half of those urban green areas are made up of private gardens. Hence what we grow in our gardens and public green spaces and how we manage them can really impact on our environment on many levels, both positively and negatively. In my job I question general assumptions on what urban green spaces (and domestic gardens in particular) do and don’t do, and challenge advice given to people involved in managing any sort of green space.

There is very sound scientific evidence about a number of ‘services’ that urban vegetation can provide; it is well established for example that vegetation moderates air temperatures, helps insulate buildings against the extremes of weather, supports and enriches urban biodiversity and human health. So the common public perceptions that parks, street trees and green domestic spaces help lower summer temperatures locally are supported by largely unanimous scientific evidence. The scientific questions remaining there lie, for example, in the need to tease out how vegetation works at various spatial scales (e.g. locally, next to the individual house, or on a neighbourhood or whole-city scales) and how various ‘services’ provided by the vegetation can be best combined. However, the way our urban green spaces and private gardens are managed (i.e. how much water, energy etc. is consumed in their management) greatly influences the level of their potential environmental benefits (with higher inputs often meaning that the benefits decrease).

To showcase the interest that the University of Reading and the Royal Horticultural Society have in researching plants in the urban environments, the two organisations are, for the first time jointly, organising an exhibit at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (22 – 26 May 2012). Our display ‘Keeping their cool: how the plants in urban environment help reduce temperatures, control flooding and capture pollution’ will be featured in the ‘RHS Environment’ section of the Flower Show. We will be attempting to provide some answers to the following questions: why urban gardens matter, what do plants contribute to the urban environment and how do they do it.?  We will also reinforce the view that not all plants act in the same way, so that a variety in plant form, structure, habit, colour etc. is likely to provide the best overall ‘service’ to the urban environment. So if you are interested, come and see us there.

*Very broadly speaking ‘ecosystem services’ can be thought of as benefits that humans derive from resources and processes that are supplied by ecosystems. In some scientific literature, the term ‘ecosystem disservice’ is also used to balance the arguments and describe functions of ecosystems that are perceived as negative for human well-being.

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