Population Growth: Elephant in the Room at Rio?

By Laura Kuhl, PhD candidate, The Fletcher School

Since leaving Rio, I’ve had several interesting conversations with people about the conference and one issue which emerged during the negotiations is particularly interesting. I was waiting in the Rio airport in the early morning to take a flight to Colombia.  In a painfully characteristic fashion a man (clearly American) walked over and asked me, “do you speak English?, and “can you get any wireless?”  I wasn’t particularly interested in complaining about the lack of wireless in the airport (sidenote- both the Addis Ababa and Bogota airports DO have remarkably good free wireless service), but it turns out that the man was an environmental reporter for the New York Times and was finishing up a piece on hydropower dams in the Amazon. He had attended the Rio+20 conference to round out his research.  He shared some fascinating opinions of Brazil’s environmental policies and I learned a lot about dam impacts that I didn’t know before.

With this background, I was very surprised when he asked me, “I heard people talking about reproductive rights at Rio- what does that have to do with environment?”  Reproductive rights was a somewhat unexpectedly hot topic at the conference, and many parties left disappointed because the final version of the text removed almost all mention of reproductive rights or population.  This omission, particularly disappointing because it was originally in the text, is critical for sustainable development.

Population growth has for years been an elephant in the room in both the environment and development communities, but it is an essential component of sustainable development.  In terms of traditional economic development, GDP growth only leads to growth in GDP per capita if the “per capitas” stay the same, or at least don’t increase faster than the GDP.  From an environmental perspective, we live in a planet with fixed resources, and even though through innovation and efficiency we can try to make those fixed resources go further, more people place more stress on these limited resources.

Even though critical, population growth, and the reproductive rights that go hand-in-hand with reducing population growth, is a very unpopular topic.  Some view it as an attempt to deflect blame from the high consumption patterns of the West, and blame developing countries for their high populations instead.  Others are wary due to concerns of offending cultural or religious beliefs and practices.  The negative historical experiences with China’s One Child policy and India’s population control under Indira Gandhi, where rights were clearly violated in the name of population control don’t help either.

During the negotiations, the Holy See (or the Vatican) consistently objected to any references to population or reproductive rights in the text.  The Holy See is not a member state of the UN; it has observer status (like Palestine) and thus the Chair is under no obligation to take its concerns into consideration.  However, Brazil, as the President, consistently acquiesced to the Holy See and all mentions were stricken.  In the final plenary of the technical negotiations, which I had the opportunity to watch, this was the main issue that the United States raised with the text.  Norway also echoed deep disappointment in this failure.  It was amazing to watch how an actor, without even an official role in the negotiations, could so strongly influence the outcome, and highlighted for me, the highly sensitive nature of this topic.

The issue of population growth reappeared during my research in Colombia, although I was not expecting it.  I was in Colombia studying a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded World Bank project on climate change adaptation.  It is a fascinating project, and very important because it represents the first on-the-ground adaptation project funded by the GEF globally, and one of the first adaptation projects in the world.  The project has many components, and one of them was to develop adaptation measures for the remote island archipelago of San Andres.  The local institution (CORALINA) implemented a staggering number of pilot adaptation measures considering the small number of funds for this component of the project.

One of the most controversial components, and the one that multiple stakeholders agreed was the most difficult, was the development of a population plan.  San Andres is a small island located in the middle of the Caribbean, a 2 hour flight away from mainland Colombia.  The island is one of the most densely populated islands in the world, with a population density of 2500 people per sq km.  The population is also growing rapidly, with trends suggesting a doubling of the population in 16 years.    CORALINA was able to link this issue to climate change adaptation due to a recent report by the National University that suggests that 17% of the island is vulnerable to loss from sea level rise.  How can the island support a rapidly growing population on a shrinking area? Drastic measures such as relocation, and much stricter immigration policies are likely to be necessary.

Although CORALINA has no authority to implement a population plan, they view this component as a success because it succeeded in bringing the issue out from the closet, and people became openly engaged in discussing it.  Perhaps linking it to something less political, like adaptation, was a smart strategy and provided an opportunity to address a topic that was otherwise off limits.  CORALINA recognizes that this is an uphill battle though, and will take years to become fully integrated into policy if it is at all.

After the dire predictions of Limits to Growth (the famous 1972 book that brought population growth to the forefront) failed to materialize, the focus on population has died back, in large part, I think because there are no easy answers.  While female education and access to birth control have been proven to help reduce growth rates significantly, a large question remains whether it is possible to support all the people on the planet.  Climate change adds an additional challenge to an already complicated picture.  Its unfortunate that Rio+20 was not able to acknowledge this important link, and continued the trend of ignoring the issue.


Final Impressions of Rio+20

By Andrew Tirrell, PhD candidate, The Fletcher School

On this the final day of the Rio+20 conference, I want to share my impressions of the event. I came away with mixed feelings, so I’m going to lay this out in a Pros/Cons list.

Pro: I met so many wonderful, interesting, and committed  people who came together to try to build a more sustainable world. The conference brought together rights activists, environmentalists, development workers, and many others from diverse walks of life, in addition to the diplomats and heads of state the media focuses on. They came from every country on the globe, and ranged from wealthy philanthropists from the developed world  to indigenous leaders from developing countries.

Con: We spent so much time on shuttle buses getting to and from the conference (nearly 4 hours a day) that we weren’t able to meet as many of these wonderful people as we would have liked. I did get to know some very interesting folks during these marathon bus sessions (an MP from Cameroon, a journalist from Panama), but these conversaions often drifted to how tired we all were after so many hours of commuting. There probably wasn’t much the conference coordinators could have done- the accommodations were just that far from the only space at which such an event could be hosted.

Pro: The logistics at the conference itself were really quite well done. Events generally ran on time, the security was tight, but not overbearing, and the space was generally comfortable and well-maintained. The staff was friendly and helpful, and the coordination between disparate authorities and types of  event was fairly smooth.

Con: RioCentro was a subpar event space choice. It had the requisite size, but in addition to the distance from accommodations and restaurants I mentioned above, the building had the feel of a warehouse, giving the conference a makeshift feel. The carpet was hastily thrown down and not even stapled to the floor, causing repeated tripping and stumbling; the walls did not reach the ceiling, making the entire space look at best like a byzantine maze, and at worst like a Dilbert-esque set of office cubicles; and the overall impression was of a convention space better suited to an automobile show rather than a crucial diplomatic gathering. Worst of all the event space was somewhat open air (large bay doors were open, and in some buldings the ceiling was open in places as well), but that did not stop the event from being heavily air conditioned. In some spots we were slightly warm, in others we were shivering from AC, but we were always wondering why a sustainabilty-focused conference in 74 degree weather would choose to use climate control in unenclosed buildings.

Con: I’ll start of with the con in this duo, so that I can end with the positive, as I really did come away with a good feeling despite what I am about to write. There was a depressing air, however, in the more diplomatically-focused  events as we all began to realize that the conference would not produce the kind of, and degree of, change that we all hoped for. Watching delgates fall back to the same old arguments that have led to inaction in the past was extremely frustrating, and a sense of hopelessness did seem to prevail amongst those expecting a diplomatic solution.

Pro: Many of the side events demonstrated that we can, and indeed will, make progress, despite the country-level impasses we still can’t seem to overcome. The World Bank/UK event I mentioned in another post below was one of more than a thousand events put on by country delegations, NGOs, and private sector groups that showed great promise for immediate, meaningful change. At the end of the day Wednesday, as I left the US Water Partnership (which TIE just joined!) launch, I had a strong sense of hope, and wondered if the dawn of a new era of diplomacy, in which civil society and the private sector might lead the way to a better world, is finally upon us.

UK and World Bank join to promote Natural Capital accounting

By Andrew Tirrell, PhD candidate, The Fletcher School

Today the World Bank and the UK held a joint side event announcing a new initiative they have called the 50/50 program. The program aims to unite at least 50 countries and 50 private sector entities into a partnership to promote and develop a sophisticated system of natural capital accounting (NCA). The event was extremely well-attended, packing the room well beyond intended seating capacity. A very significant media presence was present as well.

Rachel Kyte, a 2002 graduate of the GMAP program at the Fletcher School, and current Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, presided over the event, which included heads of state from Costa Rica, Norway, and Gabon, as well as representatives from private sector firms such as Unilever, Dow and Puma. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the UK gave opening remarks, and was briefly interrupted by a protester wearing a mask of his likeness, and claiming that the UK and the World Bank were conspiring to sell the world’s ecological assets through the initiative.

To the contrary, Ms. Kyte and speakers such as Prime Minister Stoltenberg of Norway claimed that NCA is the only way to hold the private sector truly accountable for the natural resources they consume or compromise. Moreover, NCA aims to correctly value the wealth held by countries who are undervalued by traditional metrics such as GDP, which do not account for eco-system services and other forms of natural capital.

Thus far, the partnership has already exceeded its initial goal, having signed up 57 countries and 86 private companies for the initiative. According to Ms. Kyte, the time is right for such action, as “there is now overwhelming support for implementation across the world.” If she is right, this partnership could prove to be among the most significant developments to com out of Rio+20. From my seat, I saw more buzz and excitement in this event than in any other room in the conference.

President Chinchilla of Costa Rica speaks as Rachel Kyte (Fletcher, 2002, seated at right) looks on.

The 50/50 Campaign- Natural Capital Accounting and the World Bank

By Laura Kuhl, PhD candidate, The Fletcher School

As the formal negotiations continue at the Heads of State level, side events are still taking place.  Unlike earlier in the week, when attendance at side events was sometimes sparse, the venue was at overflow capacity and enthusiasm was high.  While the formal text is weak and does not advance the sustainable development agenda to nearly the degree that we would have hoped for, there are more  optimistic efforts occurring on the sidelines of Rio.  News coverage of Rio might be pessimistic, but there are positive things happening in the background.

One of these exciting initiatives is a campaign on n atural capital accounting.  Rachel Kyte F’02,  Vice President for Sustainable Development of the World Bank, opened the panel on natural capital accounting, and the launch of the World Bank’s 50/50 campaign.  The 50/50 campaign’s goals is to get 50 governments and 50 companies to publicly commit to support natural capital accounting. She spoke of the Bank’s commitment to support governments and the private sector in assessing natural capital accounting, and said that she saw this as essential to the future of the Bank’s support of economic development.

Natural capital accounting is a concept to move beyond a purely economic approach to accounting.  Measuring natural resources allows us to acknowledge the value placed on natural resources and incorporate these values into decision-making. It also allows governments and companies to recognize the impact of their activities on natural resources.

A panel of political leaders throughout the world spoke of their commitment to natural capital accounting.  The Rt. Hon. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, co-host of the event, spoke of the UK’s commitment to incorporating natural capital accounting into government decision-making and announced that all companies on the London exchange will be required to annually report their greenhouse gas emissions.

H.E. Laura Chinchilla Miranda, President of Costa Rica, spoke of Costa Rica’s leadership in natural resource protection and the importance of these investments in the development and prosperity of the country.  She emphasized that Costa Rica’s experience demonstrates that prosperity and natural capital are not in competition, but mutually reinforcing. H.E. Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, began by questioning why politicians had been invited to speak on such a technical issue as accounting, but immediately answered that natural capital accounting is a critical political issue, because it is all about how we choose to value nature.   Norway is a leader in support of forests throughout the world, recognizing the value of these resources. H.E. Ali  Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon raised several challenges for natural resource accounting, including the challenges of inter-generational equity, fungibility of economic, social and natural capital, and mechanisms for compensation for those with natural capital.

While there is strong enthusiasm for the initiative, not everyone is supportive.  One activist, wearing a mask, interrupted the opening speaker to speak out against the World Bank, yelling that the World Bank was going to sell off nature.  After causing a scene, she was quickly escorted out of the room.

A series of other governmental leaders spoke of their commitment as well.  To date 57 countries, 16 civil society and international organizations and 86 private sector organizations have already signed on.  The list includes an impressive list of actors, including Walmart, the United States, WWF, and FAO.  

A second half of the side event continued with a series of leaders of companies and from the financial sector.  These leaders similarly announced their commitment.

 With concrete commitments of actions in their own countries and financial support for the initiative, the event ended with a strong sense that action will result from the discussion today.  This is the first event at Rio that I have attended where action and implementation felt prominent.

Final Negotiating Hours- Monday June 18th

By Laura Kuhl, PhD candidate, The Fletcher School

Over the past several days, we have been watching the negotiators as they attempt to agree to a text.  The negotiators had until Monday evening to conclude their negotiations, and then Brazil compiled a final version of the text, which was released Tuesday morning, before the negotiations moved from the technical negotiators to the Heads of State level.

Here, I report some observations from the last day of technical negotiations before the text was closed:

Frustration is building as the negotiators close in on the last hours before the text is closed tonight by the Brazilian Presidency.  We are watching the negotiations for the Means of Implementation section of the text, considered the most critical component of the text because it addresses financing and implementation of everything agreed to in the rest of the document.

The majority of the delegates are in one giant huddle, trying to come to agreement on technology transfer, one of the most contentious aspects of the text.  This morning, the Brazilian Presidency released a revised version of the negotiating text, and then delegates broke out for small group meetings to discuss the text.  One of the major additions was language from TRIPS, article 7, dealing with intellectual property rights.  This issue is now a major hold up in the negotiations.

Delivering the text to the delegates is a bit of a fiasco.  First, the copies took a long time to arrive, and the Brazilians had to read out the changes to the text paragraph by paragraph before delivering any text to the delegates.  When it did arrive, it had not been collated, and so a long process ensued before the delegates received their copies.  The session than broke until 4pm so delegates could negotiate in small groups informally.

It is now 5pm, and the Brazilians have reentered the room.  The huddle has gotten more and more heated, and tension in the room is visibly rising.  Very little deference is being shown to the Chair- he gave them five minutes before reconvening, but they waved him away and said 15.   As we watch from across the room, the main argument appears to be between the G77 and the US.  We overheard the US angrily exclaim, “IP is not protected.  IP is fizzling like a wild animal through the forest.”  Sadly we could not hear the Indian reply.

We now have delegates who have climbed over the tables to join the huddle from the other side.  No sign that the huddle plans to break up in the near future.  At least there are signs that text is being drafted.

At 5:45 the huddle finally broke and Brazil brought the negotiations to order.  The EU began the discussions by asking for more time, particularly in a space with access to a computer.  For the G77, mechanisms for finance and technology transfer are the crux of the matter.   They say they need financing for sustainable development that is new and additional, although they understand that this needs to be all types of financing (a concession from their previous demands specifically for public financing).  In addition to debates about the “voluntary” nature of technology transfer, the other main topic was trade and agricultural subsidies. 

One of the challenges is that Brazil has attempted to make references to previous documents, but many feel that the specific lines cannot be taken out of the context of the entire documents, and that including specific language out of context may be more problematic.

Little room for agreement appeared possible, and by 7pm the Presidency concluded the negotiations.  It was now up to Brazil to finalize the text in a way that addressed as many interests as possible!

The Brazilian Presidency collates copies of the draft text as delegates anxiously wait to see the text


Delegates engage in informal negotiations in a huge huddle as they struggle to reach agreement.