April 10, 2012


Towards Rio+20: Proposal for an Intergovernmental Ethics Panel

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.114(March 2012)

In anticipation of the Rio+20 Summit coming up in June this year, Ryoichi Yamamoto --- a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, also a director of Japan for Sustainability --- and others tendered a proposal to establish an "Intergovernmental Ethics Panel for Ecological Civilization" (IEPEC). Since I believe this is a noteworthy event based on a very important idea, I would like to introduce an outline of the proposal, using information provided by Professor Yamamoto.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Earth Summit), the Rio+20 Summit will be held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the original UNCED was held. With the aim of following up the outcomes of the UNCED, Rio+20 will focus on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development.

In the leadup to Rio+20, 650 non-governmental organizations and others around the world have drawn up many suggestions. One is the proposal from Professor Yamamoto and others to create an Intergovernmental Ethics Panel for Ecological Civilization as a specialized agency of the United Nations in order to strengthen institutional frameworks for sustainable development.

As shown in the following table, there are some official institutions which provide international political leaders with evaluations of scientific knowledge on climate change, resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services. They regularly publish excellent reports, which exert a strong influence on international politics and economics. For example, the Nobel Prize Committee selected the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) jointly with Al Gore, former US vice president, for the Peace Prize in 2007 "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."


The three existing international panels for scientific advice and the newly proposed plan for an ethics panel:

- Existing scientific panels

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Working Group I : data from the physical sciences
Working Group II : consequences, adaptation and vulnerability
Working Group III: options for mitigating climate change
International Resource Panel (IRP)
Environmental impacts over the full life cycle of products and services, efficient use of natural resources, and decoupling of natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth
Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)

- Newly proposed Ethic Panel (proposed)

Intergovernmental Ethics Panel for Ecological Civilization (IEPEC)
Working Group I : philosophical, religious, cultural, and ethical foundations for ecological civilization
Working Group II : Environmental ethics on natural resource use and climate security
Working Group III: Ethics of financial/economic systems based on sustainability and equity


The newly proposed IEPEC would evaluate the ethical aspects of policies and institutions on philosophical, religious, cultural and ethical levels, from the perspective of "ecological civilization," a civilization which would exist in harmony with natural systems. These ethical aspects cannot be evaluated on the basis of scientific knowledge.

The IEPEC would be expected to guide the world's sustainable development in the right direction in collaboration with the three scientific panels. Its initiatives would include the publication of an annual white paper on global ethics prepared by thousands of experts around the world who would take part in the activities of the IEPEC.

The effects of global warming are already evident in the world, and extreme "once-in-100-years" weather events are becoming more common. To limit the average rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels (the 2 degrees Celsius target), global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by about 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Global emissions, however, continue to grow steadily.

Without drastic measures, the average rise in global temperature is projected to reach 4 degrees Celsius by around 2060. Prominent climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Hans Schellnhuber warn that only fewer than one billion people can survive in a plus-4 degrees Celsius world. By the year 2100, the world's population is estimated to swell to 10 billion, meaning that nine billion people would perforce perish over 40 years in the latter half of the 21st century--- an unprecedented disaster. Even before that time period, there is also grave concern about "climate wars" which might result from cross-border movements of large numbers of "environmental refugees" forced to migrate due to food shortages and other difficulties.

In a world with an ever-growing population, it is imperative for us to work towards a fundamental solution to poverty and other social problems, while promoting the construction of social infrastructure in developing countries. The prospects for overcoming the difficulties we now face will be extremely poor if we fail to make a "Copernican conversion." This means that humanity as a whole must make a paradigm shift within the next 50 years, away from the current environmentally destructive civilization and towards an ecological civilization that is sustainable within the carrying capacity of the Earth. To make this happen, we need to drastically change our sense of values and ethics; that is, we need to achieve a truly ecological conversion.

In view of these problems, Prof. Yamamoto suggested the establishment of the IEPEC during a panel discussion co-chaired by Prof. Yutaka Tanaka of Sophia University and Prof. Herman Greene held in September 2011 as part of the international conference marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Sophia University.

Prof. Greene, an eminent American philosopher, thought well of the Intergovernmental Ethics Panel for Ecological Civilization (IEPEC) proposal, considering it significant and timely. Consequently, it was decided to propose the IEPEC along with a proposal for a new group, the "Ethical Organizations for Sustainability," which is being put forth by the Advisory Group on International Environmental Governance of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

It will not suffice to focus only on science or policies: Sustainable development is not only an economic/technological, but also an ethical/spiritual challenge, and we need to plan, implement and assess sustainable development policies from ethical/spiritual aspects. Based on such a recognition, ideas and strategies should be pursued through the integration of the so-called triple bottom line (economy, environment and equity), to support economic growth, the public heritage, equity and a hopeful future for young people.

Here follows some of the major ethics initiatives proposed so far:

  • the necessity for a common ethics framework
  • United Nations trusteeship of the global public heritage
  • an ombudsman for future generations
  • introduction of the precautionary principle (the principle of "prevention is better than cure")
  • a conference/convention on corporate social responsibility
  • a new scale for GDP
  • legal recognition of the rights of nature and legal rules on ecocide (the destruction of an ecosystem)
  • ethical assessment of organizations and policies
  • a conscience clause council
  • an Intergovernmental Ethics Panel for Ecological Civilization (IEPEC)
  • a permanent forum for ethics
  • an ethics assessment office
  • informed consent from indigenous people
  • annual publication of global ethics white paper
  • sustainable development objectives
  • millennium consumption objectives

A total of 650 NGOs put forth various proposals toward 'Rio+20' as of November 1, 2011. As 75 of them involve ethics and spiritual concerns, many people have started to recognize that ethical aspects must be considered as well as science policy aspects in order to truly consider and promote sustainable development.

JFS will continue supporting this idea in the hopes that the IEPEC proposal will obtain the understanding and approval of many people as we approach 'Rio+20.'

Written by Junko Edahiro


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