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Corporations at Rio+20

As Rio+20 approaches, we are publishing two new articles on corporations:

Calling the corporations to account
is a short history of why corporate power was not tackled at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, even though many people went to Rio with the purpose of limiting it. It is written to stimulate efforts to make Rio+20 the place where we finally begin the international process to control corporate power.

Corporations are not human, so why should they have human rights?
explains how corporations came to have human rights, and asks whether this is desirable, and what we might do about it.

Who’s in Charge?
Through these articles, we also want to highlight a previous piece of work. This is a short history of the development of the modern corporation and corporate personhood in the UK, written by Daniel Bennett at the request of Helena Paul, for the Programme on Corporations, Law and Democracy.

Calling the corporations to account

The first Earth Summit took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, - this was the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), from which the three major environmental agreements on climate, biodiversity and desertification (UNFCCC, CBD, UNCCD) emerged. The Precautionary Principle was established as a fundamental part of the CBD. Just a few months later, in December 1992, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created “to ensure effective follow-up of Rio Earth Summit”. There were high hopes that at last the international community would begin to address some of the major collective issues of planetary health: biodiversity loss, climate change and desertification.

Corporations are not human, so why should they have human rights?

We live in a world where corporations wield immense power. They operate at global level, beyond the reach of national governments. They play a major part in dictating the kind of development path humanity is following, based on the concept of endless economic growth. Now we are beginning to reach the limits of what the planetary ecosystem can sustain, but there is apparently no limit to the ambition of large corporations. Yet attempts to control them and limit their power and reach have not been successful to date.

Synthetic Biology

"We consider that during the dialogue, several scientists made statements about synthetic biology that bore no relation to current knowledge, and did not mention the uncertainties involved. In particular, we felt that the principle of scientific uncertainty was not always fully conveyed, despite, in our opinion, the public being perfectly capable of understanding it."

The liaison group on geo-engineering does not fulfil the CBD decision

As participants at the London meeting, we would like to share with you our comments on the liaison group process so far. We do not think the process to date responds well to the mandate from COP 10, in particular to those aspects of it which direct us to:
“Compile and synthesize available scientific information, and views and experiences of indigenous and local communities and other stakeholders on the possible impacts of geo-engineering techniques on biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural considerations, and options on definitions and understandings of climate-related geo-engineering relevant to the Convention on Biological Diversity”

Our main comments are as follows:

  • We are concerned that the report as drafted so far draws primarily on two previous reports, by the Royal Society and the IGBP, both of which were written by a group predominantly of people supportive of geo‐engineering. Reliance on those two reports was presented as a 'fact' at the meeting and not subject to discussion by participants.
  • The report does little to address the dearth of knowledge on the question of potential geoengineering impacts on biodiversity.
  • The mandate relates to the impact of geoengineering on biodiversity, yet few biodiversity specialists are involved, very few civil society groups and no indigenous and local communities (ILCs). This is unacceptable as this is a particular contribution that the CBD should make to the debate.

Soy production and certification: the case of Argentinean soy-based biodiesel

With the rising emphasis on biofuels as a potential solution to climate change, this paper asks whether certification schemes, developed to promote sustainable feedstock production, are able to deliver genuine sustainability benefits. The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) is a certification scheme that aims to promote responsible soy production through the development of principles and criteria. However, can and does this initiative address the negative impacts associated with the intensive production of soy? Taking the example of soy biodiesel produced in Argentina, this paper asks whether the social and environmental impacts of soybean production can be mitigated by the RTRS. It concludes that at present certification schemes are unlikely to be able to address either the institutional challenges associated with their implementation or the detrimental impacts of the additional demand generated by biofuels.

EU biofuel target causes serious damage in the Global South

We believe that serious damage being done in the global south by the EU biofuel target and that sustainability criteria are completely inadequate to address this.

Real problems, false solutions

Three activities – no-till agriculture, biochar and more intensified livestock farming with reduced methane emissions – are likely to benefit from increased funding because of their alleged role in combating global warming. What is the evidence that these activities can reduce greenhouse gas emissions? What will happen to the world’s biodiversity and the global climate if these sectors are hugely expanded? And who is likely to benefit?

Information concerning Innovative Financial Mechanisms (IFMs): Offset Programmes

With Decision X/3, A, paragraph 8(c) "invites parties, relevant organisations and initiatives.[...] to submit information concerning innovative financial mechanisms that have potential to generate new and additional financial resources as well as possible problems that could undermine achievement of the Convention's three objectives [...]".
This submission focuses on experiences with offset programmes, showing examples and concerns that have arisen from them and that are relevant to ideas of developing biodiversity offset systems or similar mechanisms.

A dangerous precedent

The Precautionary Principle advises society to be cautious about a technology or practice where there is scientific uncertainty, ignorance, gaps in knowledge or the likelihood of outcomes we did not predict or intend. It runs counter to the optimistic notion that any negative impacts from a technology can be addressed and may provide an opportunity to develop new solutions, so contributing to economic growth. The US Chamber of Commerce dislikes the precautionary approach and prefers: “the use of sound science, cost-benefit analysis, and risk assessment when assessing a particular regulatory issue.” Its strategy is therefore to: “Oppose the domestic and international adoption of the precautionary principle as a basis for regulatory decision making.”


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