The World Summit on Sustainable Development currently under way in Johannesburg must move beyond rhetoric and commit to action if the global environment is to improve, according to a Foreign Ministry official knowledgeable about Africa.

“It will be a success if action-oriented decisions are taken, a failure if it ends simply with beautiful phrases,” said Kaoru Ishikawa, deputy director general of the ministry’s Multilateral Cooperation Department.

Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, formally known as the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development, countries are still grappling with how to preserve the environment and eradicate poverty.

To this end, Japan and other countries are negotiating a course of action as well as preparing a number of partnerships designed to facilitate cooperation between the public and private sectors.

Japan’s key role in Johannesburg is to offer advice on how to avoid the ravages of development but meanwhile make development sustainable, and people-based, said Ishikawa, who spent several years in Africa, some posted as a councilor at the Japanese Embassy in Zaire.

“If Japan really wants to demonstrate leadership, then the one thing that Japan can do is to tell (countries) this: Don’t repeat our mistakes,” he said, noting the scourges of mercury poisoning and air pollution that Japan experienced during its rapid reindustrialization after the war.

“This is much more important than (setting) numerical (renewable energy) targets,” said Ishikawa, who doubles as the ministry’s ambassador for civil society.

While the European Union and nongovernmental organizations are eagerly advocating numerical targets for renewable energy, for instance providing 15 percent of all energy through the use of renewable energy by 2010, the U.S. and Japan are dead set against the idea. Japanese officials have said this is one area where Japan may not be able to eke out a compromise.

“With renewable energy, the biggest point is that Japan is the most energy efficient country in the world. So essentially Japan has already done its homework,” Ishikawa claimed.

He pointed out that natural conditions vary by nation and that it is harder for mountainous Japan to harness wind for power than most of Europe.

“That (renewable energy) ball is not in our court,” Ishikawa said. “Europe is proposing that (wind energy), and I think they should try to find a compromise.”

Citizen groups and developing countries are urging Japan and other countries to pledge more aid and cut agricultural and energy subsidies. At a preparatory meeting in March, both the U.S. and EU pledged new aid money, leaving Japan the odd man out.

Ishikawa shrugged this off, and gave numbers of his own.

“In 1999 (Japan supplied) more than 27 percent (of global official developmental assistance). In 2000, 25 percent. Sure, in 2001, there was a cut as everyone said, but Japan still (dispensed) more than double the third-largest donor, which was Germany,” Ishikawa said.

But he said that he is leery of numbers and that proposing figures is not the same as proposing action.

Instead, the philosophical underpinnings of aid setting preconditions for sustainable development in countries are paramount, he said, emphasizing the role of peace, security and good governance.

“Essentially, it is about ordinary people working hard,” he said. “But they need to be motivated … they need to have hope that tomorrow may be better than today. Only then will they invest in the future and things like education and their own bodies. And this is about nation building.”

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