Pessimism at start of Earth Summit

Ten years of hot air and broken promises have led to a defeatist climate at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg before the event has even begun. However, there is a growing consensus about what needs to be done as organisations around the globe begin to work to this end.

The central issue at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg is to reduce world poverty through environment-friendly, sustainable growth policies which will at the same time bridge the gap between the so-called “haves” and “have-nots”. International organisms and NGOs call upon the governments of the developed world to help to reduce the number of people without sanitation, drinking water and electricity, calculated at 20% of the world’s population.

The divide between the rich and the poor is blatantly evident at the venue, in the luxurious, marble-floored Sandton City, a complex of five-star hotels complete with oyster bars laden with delicious dishes of caviar and icy-cold champagne, while a stone’s throw away is the sprawling Alexandra township, an unsightly spread of huts and mud tracks, home to 100,000 people. As the prostitutes move into Sandton, the Earth Summit begins.

What is important here is that the main issues are focused on and that movement is made towards the creation and implementation of sustainable growth and development policies with set targets and timing, the ratification and implementation of international agreements on the environment, namely in the areas of climate change, biodiversity, desertification and stocks, not the ramblings of Robert Mugabe, whose presence threatens to hijack the show.

It is on the issue of quotas, targets and timing where most of the discussion is bound to take place and as usual, it is the position of the world’s greatest polluter of the atmosphere, the United States of America, which monopolises the attention of the media, although not always is this position fairly reported. While it is true that the US delegation has made it clear that Washington does not consider donating any fresh sums towards the reduction of poverty or the protection of the environment, clear in the comments of the delegation leader, John Turner: “We do not see the need for any new targets”, it is also a fact that the USA was party to the Monterrey agreement in March, at which the G8 countries agreed on a 12 bn. USD package for the third world.

Other countries, however, would like the USA to do more on environmental pollution, sanitation, biodiversity and renewable energy, the latter being a particularly poignant issue given that the Bush administration is not only supported by, but fundamentally founded on, the energy lobby. Britain, for example, would like the Earth Summit to stipulate targets on sanitation and Margaret Beckett, the British Environment Secretary, aims to convince the Americans: “It is true that the American government is not doing as much as we would all like to see it do, but that does not mean that there are not lots of people in America who take these issues just as seriously as they deserve”, she declared upon arrival in Johannesburg.

The presence of multi-national companies at the Summit has caused the fury of certain NGOs, who question their role at such an event in the light of their own interests (profit-making) and their environmental record, quoting the examples of Rio Tinto Mining, which intended to mine uranium in Australia’s Kakadu national Park, a World Heritage Site and an important wildlife reserve, and Anglo-American Mining which is accused of environmental outrages in Zambia, to name just two of the multi-nationals parading themselves as interested parties to the Summit.

The 65,000 delegates and 100 Heads of State will have the next ten days to go through the 4,000 proposals and prove that the wave of pessimism sweeping round Sandton City before the Summit begins was a mere case of stage fright. However, upon analysis of the Summits over the last ten years, at which promises were made and either broken or never implemented fully or even in part, the onus is very much on those present to show work done and not a repeated failure which, in the words of a UNO spokesperson, would be “a complete disaster”.

Back in June 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it was promised at the Earth Summit that everything possible would be done to reduce atmospheric pollution levels, resulting in a treaty to reduce emissions of GEG (Greenhouse Effect Gases, such as CO2). It was at Rio that the UN Commission on Sustainable Development assumed responsibility for the economic growth of LDCs (Less Developed Countries) within an environmentally-friendly framework.

In October 1993, President Clinton proposed an ambitious programme to combat global warming, promising to reduce US GEG levels to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The following year, in Cairo, 17 bn. USD was promised by the developed countries for health programmes in LDCs.

It was in Kyoto, in 1997, where the world’s industrialised nations signed the famous Protocol, compromised themselves to follow a set plan to reduce GEG emission to a percentage of 1990 GEG levels by 2012. In September, 2000, at the Millennium Summit at the UNO, it was undertaken to reduce by one half the number of people living on less than one USD/day by 2015.

In March 2001, President George Bush abandoned the Protocol of Kyoto, because it damaged the economic interests of the USA, claiming that he did not believe the studies presented by scientists linking GEG to global warming were true, despite these having been accepted by the UNO.

In March 2002, a further 12 bn. USD were pledged by the G8 governments in Monterrey for development financing. Despite all the good plans and positive noises, the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider, more people are dying from curable diseases and the climate starts to show serious signs of damage by Mankind.

It remains to be seen whether Johannesburg will be more of the same, or something more.


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