From the depths of our oceans to our atmosphere’s ozone layer, there is little doubt that the global environment is taking a beating. Even so, most of us are still waiting for someone else to take action, which is why the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development starting this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, is good news.
If all goes as the organizers plan, the WSSD will kick-start worldwide efforts to help millions out of poverty while conserving our planet. The problems, of course, are daunting — and drummed into us daily. So often, in fact, that we have grown inured to them.
But in case you have been day-dreaming for several years, and missed the bad news, here are a few examples:
* The Earth now supports more than 6 billion people, but 1.1 billion have no safe drinking water.
* Some 1.2 billion people live on $1 or less a day, while the richest 1 billion receive 78 percent of world income.
* For every single ton of waste, five more tons are produced in the manufacturing stage of the product stream, and 20 more tons at the resource-extraction stage.
* Every day, three to five new chemicals enter the marketplace, though about 80 percent are not tested for toxicity, and toxicology data is not available for 99 percent of the more than 70,000 industrial chemicals now in regular use.
* Of the world’s adults, 20.6 percent cannot read or write, and the number of illiterate women has increased over the past decade.
The list goes on, and on — but you get the idea.
The problems are global and the challenges are huge; reason enough for a very big conference, which the WSSD will be. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 4, as many as 65,000 people will gather in Johannesburg, including more than 100 national leaders and representatives from most of the world’s 189 countries. U.S. President George W. Bush, however, has decided not to attend.
The goal is to adopt a concrete plan of action for reining in the policies and profligacies that are nibbling away at the planet. The meeting is also being called Earth Summit II and Rio+10, because it is a followup to the first Earth Summit — officially called the UN Conference on Environment and Development — held in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago.
The first international gathering to discuss the global environment was the Stockholm Summit held in Sweden in 1972. Twenty years later Brazil hosted the 1992 summit. Now it is South Africa’s turn.
“Rio decided much of what needs to be done,” according to Nitin Desai of India, the secretary general of the WSSD. “Now Johannesburg will take a big step forward with the aim to meet people’s needs and still preserve the Earth’s ecosystems and resources for future generations.”
U.S. at odds with the world
Can it be done? Here is a look at what will be happening, and why.
Rio did not spur the world to action as many had hoped. One of the most widely lamented examples of inaction has been the abortive effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and climate change.
At the first Earth Summit, 170 nations adopted a convention aimed at reducing these emissions. That was the legal genesis of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls on industrialized nations to make reductions (on average 5.2 percent) in greenhouse gas emissions to levels below those of 1990.
Global carbon emissions, however, continue to climb, and are now 10 percent higher than in 1990. In Japan, annual emissions are more than 8 percent above 1990 levels, and U.S. levels are up a whopping 18 percent.
The U.S. increase, due to energy consumption, will be a target of considerable criticism in Johannesburg, particularly because Bush last year took the unprecedented step of disengaging the planet’s prime consumer and polluter nation from the Kyoto Protocol.
Bush claims the U.S. will instead undertake voluntary greenhouse gas emissions reductions through increased energy efficiency. Few, however, are reassured, as emissions continue to rise and the Bush administration remains closely tied to corporate oil and gas interests.
Greenhouse gas emissions, though, are just one of the issues that have put the U.S. at odds with the rest of the world in the lead-up to the Johannesburg summit. As Alexander Weissink wrote in The Japan Times on June 11, in an article headlined “Let them breathe water: U.S. blocks sustainable development talks” about the summit preparatory meetings over the past year, the U.S. has angered much of the world with its overall unwillingness to accept “firm and ambitious targets and deadlines.”
Weissink quoted a European delegate who captured the sense of frustration, saying: “While the world has to march on its orders in the fight against terrorism, the U.S. government feels no need to join the struggle against the threat to life on Earth in general.”
In Europe, by contrast, there is a sense of urgency. According to Swedish Prime Minister Gan Persson, the European Union is seeking “clear and achievable targets with specific time frames” to deal with environmental degradation, as well as significant increases in financial resources to address the problems.
And while the U.S. insists that free trade and international business investment can bring about a clean, green, golden age, recent U.S. accounting scandals have only increased European skepticism as to whether corporations can ever be expected to bring the greatest good to the greatest number.
Developing nations, too, will be key players in Johannesburg, insisting on their right to unrestrained industrial development, and refusing to accept environmental restrictions imposed by their well-to-do — and quick-to-preach — northern neighbors.
If anyone should make sacrifices to clean up the world, they argue, it should be the industrialized nations that are responsible for creating the problems in the first place. Developing nations remain eager to receive financial and technological assistance, but only if these come without strings attached.
Besides governments, nongovernmental organizations will be active at the WSSD.
Many environmental NGOs side with the developing world, placing responsibility for global clean-up squarely on the industrialized nations. And, like the Europeans, they are wary of a free-trade fix.
“Governments have allowed, and continue to allow, big business to wreak havoc,” says Marcelo Furtado of Greenpeace, which is calling for a legally binding international agreement on corporate accountability and liability.
Claude Martin, director general of WWF International, the Swiss-based conservation organization, agrees. “The path now being followed by governments and many international institutions, in assuming that economic growth is the first priority, is actually leading away from the alleviation of rural poverty and environmental degradation,” he says.
Martin believes this path only leads to inequality, which has become an increasingly “dangerous force in the world.”
Obstacles and obstinacy
The WSSD is being sponsored by the United Nations and the government of South Africa, and — reflecting either optimism or folly — is scheduled to last just 10 days.
Preparations, however, have been under way for more than a year, and had they gone according to plan, national delegates to the Summit Preparatory Committee meeting in April should have reached agreement on goals and an implementation plan.
They did not. Then meeting in May, in Bali, they again failed to conclude a Plan of Implementation to be adopted in Johannesburg.
The goal for Bali was to draft an international, intergovernmental plan for dealing with problems such as poverty, climate change and threatened forests and fisheries, and for making the transition to sustainable resource use.
The U.S. and others, however, insisted that free trade and volunteerism were sufficient to deal with these global problems, and repeatedly blocked the adoption of specific language that would have created funding and set specific targets and dates.
According to Kim Carstensen, head of the WWF delegation in Bali: “This meeting could have been a step to a better world but, instead, the governments showed neither leadership nor vision. In particular the United States, Australia and Canada have employed systems of horse trading and corridor deals.”
What’s to be done? U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, too, has voiced concern.
Progress since Rio has been “slower than expected, and — more important — slower than what was needed,” he noted recently. “A setback now would be a tragic missed opportunity,” he said, referring to the discord at preparatory meetings.
Annan has identified six areas where action is needed, stating that these “hold the key” to an agreement on a Plan of Implementation.
The six are: promotion of the principles adopted at Rio; finance and replenishment of the Global Environment Facility, which funds environmental programs; globalization and trade; good governance; time-bound targets; and technology transfers.
While agreeing on and implementing such a plan will involve complex institutional, technological and economic efforts, the goals are relatively simple: protecting ecosystems and providing for basic human needs.
According to Gary Gardener, of Worldwatch, a Washington-based environmental research institute: “We are still far from ending the economic and environmental marginalization that afflicts billions of people. The divide between rich and poor is widening in many countries, undermining social and economic stability, while pressures on the world’s natural systems continue to mount.”
Gardener points out that even after 10 years the problems remain the same, and some are worse, despite being red-flagged at the Rio summit. Greenhouse gas emissions, for example, continue to rise, even though to stabilize the climate we must reduce them by 60 to 80 percent.
He also cites coral degradation, explaining that close on 30 percent of coral reefs are now “regarded as seriously degraded.”
Malnutrition is another serious concern, he adds, as is water. Access to clean water and sanitation have improved in absolute terms, but have “barely kept pace with population growth,” while more and more major rivers “now run dry at some point each year.”
But water is not the only resource we are running out of. “Total materials use and extraction of virgin materials continue to climb,” says Gardener, and recycling rates have “stagnated at 30-50 percent in industrial countries.”
In short, as Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso recently said, “There is still a lot to be done and, unfortunately, very little to celebrate.”
Dwindling courage and political will
WSSD organizers, though, are not glum. “Countries have shown a great willingness to seek convergence. . . . Progress is perceptible,” says WSSD Secretary General Desai, and South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, is equally upbeat. “I do not see major differences in the positions of the delegations,” he says. “It should not take long to get an agreement in Johannesburg.”
Getting to an agreement, however, is just the first step. The next, more of a leap really, is getting nations and corporations to invest in change.
Building a sustainable society will take more than words and gestures; it will require action at every level of society. And while the Europeans and the U.S. face off, the former keen on targets and deadlines and cooperation with developing countries, and the latter committed to promoting free trade and multinational companies, Japan finds itself torn between the two.
As one leading Japanese environmentalist, Mitsutoshi Hayakawa, recently noted: “If Japan wants to present itself as an environmentally friendly country, the prime minister should attend the summit and call for an international order for the preservation of the global environment.”
But standing up to the U.S., like conserving the global environment, requires courage and political will. Two commodities that, like so many resources in Japan and worldwide, are dwindling at an ever-increasing rate.