Small Steps: World Summit delegates wrangle over eco-friendly future

The World Summit on Sustainable Development concluded in controversy last week in Johannesburg.

Some delegates claimed that the United Nations meeting was a success, with agreements on many issues. Detractors argued that the 10-day summit was a waste of time, pointing to the lack of specific targets and deadlines within those agreements.

More than 20,000 government delegates and others descended on South Africa for the summit, which began Aug. 26. The meeting was organized to focus governments on improving the quality of life for poor people while minimizing environmental damage and conserving resources.

The meeting coincided with the 10th anniversary of the U.N. Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro (SN: 6/20/92, p. 407). Despite drawing much attention, the earlier summit failed to live up to many of its goals, which were similar to those in Johannesburg.

Since 1992, financial aid from wealthy nations to developing nations has decreased, forests and coral reefs have continued to decline at an unprecedented rate, and carbon dioxide pollution has grown annually.

In Johannesburg, the U.S. delegation called for action to reverse these and other discouraging trends, but it argued against firm goals and timetables, saying they might prove meaningless. For instance, delegates from Europe, Brazil, and the Philippines lobbied hard for a target for renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar power, of 15 percent of worldwide energy by 2015.

Currently, 4.5 percent of energy comes for these sources. The United States, along with Japan and oil-producing countries, strongly opposed such a specific goal. The final agreement called only for nations to “increase the use of renewable energy” and set no specific deadline.

Other pledges commit nations to slow biodiversity loss by 2010, create international marine sanctuaries by 2012, restore commercial health of global fisheries by 2015, halve the number of people lacking access to clean water or sanitation by 2015, and manufacture and use toxic chemicals in ways that are less harmful by 2020.

U.N. officials praised these voluntary commitments. However, many environmental-advocacy groups expressed disappointment. “There are too many gaps and too few teeth in the [summit’s] plan of action,” says Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

There was “nothing like the target” that his group had hoped for on renewable energy, agrees Brooks Yaeger of the World Wildlife Fund U.S., also in Washington, D.C. However, Yaeger commends the conferees for agreeing to restore fisheries, which offers the first “global recognition of the terrible decline in fish stocks.”

“I’ll be pleased with all the agreements, if they actually go into practice,” remarks primatologist Jane Goodall of the Jane Goodall Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

Some observers expressed dismay that global warming was scarcely on the

official agenda. “Climate change was and is the big issue, [but] it was ignored,” says ecologist George M. Woodwell of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Research Center.

However, climate change received much attention along the summit’s sidelines.

The biggest surprise came when the Amsterdam-based activist group Greenpeace International joined forces with the Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which represents British Petroleum and Sony, among other companies. Their statement said that “we are shelving our differences on other issues on this occasion [and calling on governments] to cooperate more fully to make the goal of greenhouse-gas reduction a reality.”

In a related move at the summit, the Russian government revealed its intent to ratify the 1997-negotiated but still pending Kyoto treaty on global warming. The fate of the agreement, which binds governments to reduce greenhouse gases, has been unsure since the United States last year said it wouldn’t ratify it (SN: 6/16/01, p. 372: Global Warming Debate Gets Hotter).

With Russian backing, the treaty will almost certainly go into practice in most of the world, says Christopher Flavin, director of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

Overall, the summit accords “were a little better than expected,” comments Flavin. He feared that discussions might break down entirely.

Nevertheless, the agreements reached are less visionary than those of the 1992 Earth Summit, says Klaus Toepfer, director of the U.N. Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya. Nations “no longer want to promise the Earth and fail,” he says.

“They would rather step forward than run too fast.”


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John Pickrell is a freelance writer based in Sydney and the author of Flames of Extinction: The Race to Save Australia’s Threatened Wildlife.

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