‘Good intentions pasted onto flawed governance structures are not enough’ – Rio+20 interview with Linda Sheehan, Earth Law Center

Linda Sheehan is Executive Director of Earth Law Center, an organisation that promotes recognition of the legal rights of all of Earth’s inhabitants and ecosystems and advocates for and promotes Earth-based laws and policies. She has 20 years’ experience of environmental law and policy.

What issues is the Earth Law Center bringing to Rio+20?


In the 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit, we have witnessed increasing worldwide ecosystem degradation and accelerating species losses. Scientists agree that we now stand at a crossroads, at which we can decide to fundamentally change our behaviour now, or face irreversible climate change impacts that will begin to take on lives of their own. Further good intentions pasted onto existing, flawed governance structures are not enough. Instead, we need to transform our overarching governance systems themselves to reward sustainable actions and discourage self-destructive behaviour. Currently, our governance systems as a whole treat environmental needs as at best a tangential afterthought, and at worst an impediment to an overarching goal of monetary profit. Environmental conventions, laws, and targets try to ameliorate the impacts of this unsustainable perspective, but they cannot reverse ongoing degradation when the system overall assumes that human welfare is separate from that of the environment. To succeed, we must embed in our laws and economic structures the science of our deeply interconnected relationship with the natural world.


Earth Law Center calls on Rio+20 decision-makers and stakeholders to champion the rights of the natural world to health and biodiversity, both for its own sake and to ensure our own well-being. Earth Law Center specifically joins Member States such as Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Paraguay in calling for the Rio+20 agreement zero draft to: recognise the rights of ecosystems and species to exist, thrive and evolve; and commit to processes for establishing those rights in international and national law. As noted by Bolivia, “In an interdependent and interrelated system like the planet Earth, it is not possible to recognise the rights of just the human part of the system without affecting the whole.” Governing ourselves in a way that acknowledges our integration with the natural world will ensure our collective wellbeing over the long term.

What do you think are civil society’s main demands for Rio+20 and are these demands being heard?

While there are numerous positive outcomes that need to arise from Rio+20, high on this list would be broad-based, clear, political acknowledgment that human use of the Earth is already well beyond sustainable levels, followed by committed political will to make the swift and systemic changes needed to correct our self-destructive governance systems. Indicators of success in this regard would include: binding (rather than solely voluntary) commitments, targets and actions across governance systems that enhance the rights of humans, ecosystems and species to health and wellbeing; and articulated mechanisms for accomplishing these. The latter must include funding, such as through a financial transaction tax, that delivers at least the existing 0.7% aid commitment.

Correcting our governance systems is a project for everyone; it cannot be accomplished by governments alone, though it can be impeded by a lack of government and corporate accountability. Accordingly, CSOs also are calling on Member States to work closely with the public toward long-term solutions through commitments to greater accountability, transparency, opportunities for public participation and access to justice, both for current and future generations. Such commitments should include: comprehensive, public assessments of the full social, health and environmental impacts of private sector and government activities that impact on the environment; corporate accountability, including reporting on achievement of adopted targets, adoption of cradle-to-cradle approaches in production and waste management, transparency of operations, and accountability to the public of the net benefits and costs of corporate operations; establishment of Ombudspersons for Future Generations; and regular reporting on overall progress in implementing adopted commitments, targets and actions.

Because these processes have yet to be put in place, it is unclear whether the collective concerns of the CSO community are being heard. The Rio+20 preparatory process to date has fortunately included some opportunities for the Major Groups to address the UN, including the Council, directly on these matters. However, feedback in terms of changes to the zero draft to reflect CSO input is needed to assess the extent to which input has been heard, considered and acted upon.

What are your thoughts on Sustainable Development Goals? How should they interface with the MDGs?

‘Sustainable development’ and the ‘green economy’ should not be considered the desired end results of Rio+20. Rather, these are merely tools to achieve the more desirable and comprehensive goal of sustainable human and environmental communities, which are supported and enhanced by sustainable development and economic practices. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be designed with this overarching end goal of collective human and environmental wellbeing firmly in mind; this approach in turn will help achieve the intent of the MDGs to improve the wellbeing of the poorest human communities. As expressed by Bolivia’s response to the zero draft, the MDGs’ goal to “overcome poverty and the tremendous inequalities that exist” must be realised together with the corresponding goal to “re-establish the equilibrium of the Earth system,” as each are “intrinsically linked and one cannot be reached independently of the other.” By setting in place a system to achieve sustainable human and environmental communities worldwide, we will ensure “the satisfaction of basic human needs in order to allow for the development of human capabilities and human happiness,” consistent with “strengthen[ed] community among human beings and with Mother Earth.”

In setting SDGs, we can learn much from our progress in achieving, or not, the MDGs. For example, setting clear numeric goals is essential to ensuring accountability and eventually success. The MDG for biodiversity (“reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss”) is too vague to be held to meaningful accountability standards, and so even its half-hearted goal to slow biodiversity loss has been missed. Nearly 17,000 species of plants and animals are currently at risk of extinction, and the number of species threatened by extinction is growing by the day. The drivers of biodiversity loss – high rates of consumption, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and climate change – can and should be addressed with specific Rio+20 SDGs that consider the rights of both humans and species.

Numeric MDGs also suffer from flaws. For example, the MDG to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation” could be viewed as a success and still leave hundreds of millions of people worldwide without sustainable access to safe drinking water. We must aim higher in setting our numeric goals, and we also must tie them to the health of the environment to ensure success. Polluted, over-drawn waterways serve neither human nor environmental needs. Rio+20 must result in specific, measureable, and reportable SDGs that protect the health of the environment, on which human health and wellbeing depend utterly.

Do you think Rio+20 can be a success without legally binding commitments from governments?

Given the immediate and serious threats to the health of the planet – and hence, to our own health – commitments are essential. While legally binding commitments are critical, they also must be firmly embraced politically to ensure that they are actually implemented and enforced. Rio+20 cannot be limited to environment ministries, but necessarily must include strong commitments by economic ministries and heads of state to ensure that needed changes in overall governance systems are made and adhered to.

Ecuador is one example of a state that took systemic action, specifically by amending its Constitution to endow the environment with inalienable rights to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” The first court case applying this provision to a river was concluded last year, with the court finding that the river’s right to flow had been violated and ordering restoration. Ecuador’s action illustrates the type of legally binding, fundamental change to which all sectors of government must commit, to set us on a path that recognises the interconnected rights of humans and environment to collective wellbeing. Finally, legally binding process commitments – such as with regard to transparency, accountability, access, funding and public reporting – also must result from Rio+20 in order to keep us on this new path.