World Summit won a limp victory

Posted: 24 September 2003

Author: John Rowley

The 10-day World Summit on Sustainable Development ended a year ago this month,with agreement on a plan of action, but with bitter disappointment from many pressure groups over its shortcomings.

Summit closing ceremony. Credit: ENSThe Summit had been hailed as one of the most important global meetings of the decade. The first major inter-governmental conference dealing with sustainable development since the Earth Summit ten years ago, it was intended to take forward the principles set out in Rio to practical action.

In the event, most of the environmental pressure groups were disappointed, and even angered, by the result.

Positive achievements

Officials put a positive face on the outcome of the meeting. But the absence of President Bush, the unwillingness of the United States and some other governments to support specific targets, and the difficulty of reaching a clear consensus on so many complex issues, left many NGOs, who hoped for real progress in combatting world poverty and saving the planet, in despair.

Others took some comfort in the global airing which was given to these issues, to useful action on the fringes of the summit and to a number of potentially positive agreements.

Water target

Most welcomed has been the hard-fought agreement to try to halve the numbers living without clean water or sanitation by 2015. Under the agreement, countries must produce water management plans by 2005. If carried through it could have a big impact on reducing poverty and increasing health.

But there is no mention of how countries increasingly short of water can be helped nor any reference to the cleaning up of the world's rivers. Many will remember the high hopes of the previous Water Decade (1981-1990), which fell well short of its goals. More than 1.2 billion people still live without clean water and twice that number without proper sanitation. Another potentially important agreement was reached on protecting the world's fishing stocks. This aims to restore most of the world's major fisheries to sustainable levels by 2015 ("if possible" adds the United States), and to establish a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012. Just how many countries will act on this, and who will protect the open ocean is unclear.

There is agreement too on the banning of some of the world's most harmful chemicals, including DDT, by 2020 (though most of these are already outlawed in the developed world).

Damaging subsidies

Weak, compromise words also emerged on issues such as the phasing out of subsidies on food and energy and opening access to markets by developing countries. NGOs felt governments had failed to grasp the urgency of opening up agricultural markets to farmers in the South. As Oxfam pointed out, wealthy states gave about $57 billion in development aid in 2001, but paid more than $350 billion to their own farmers.

On the other hand, environmental ministers were delighted that the agreement promises to give environmental treaties equal standing with trade treaties negotiated in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). That is not the case with the agreements in Johannsburg which have no sanctions attached. Nor,in the event, did environment figure prominently at this month's WTO meeting in Cancun.

There was a commitment to 'significantly reduce' the loss of species, but nothing specific on the whole question of biodiversity, including forests, fish and other biological resources.

Renewable energy

Most disappointing for many pressure groups was the failure to break the deadlock on any target for the increased use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, merely agreement to move with 'a sense of urgency' to 'substantially increase' their use.

Some developing countries sided with the United States, Japan and the Opec oil producing states to prevent agreement on a target. They defeated both Brazil's aim for modern renewables to make up 10 per cent of world energy by 2010 and the EU plan to increase the use of all renewables from 14 to 15 per cent in the same period.

Friends of the Earth called the decision to 'abandon' renewables "very disappointing" while Greenpeace said it was "worse than could be imagined". However, South Africa's Environment Minister Vali Moose said renewable energy targets were a 'rich country's luxury'and the Summit secretary general, Nitin Desai, said that sustained action could still build up the renewable energy industries to the point where they can compete with traditional sources of energy.

Frustrated by this outcome leaders of more than 30 governments agreed after the meeting to go further than the summit declaration on renewable energy and to conduct regular reviews of progress towards clear targets for clean energy at national, regional and, hopefully, global levels.

Big business

There was no agreement on the contentious issue of regulating the activities of multinationals, beyond a call for the private sector to act responsibly. This issue is now relegated to the UN General Assembly.

Indeed, some non-government groups were quick to attack what they saw as the hijacking of the conference by big business. They remain unhappy about the increased role for the World Trade Organisation, and the partnerships involving corporations in giving aid to developing countries. They fear, for example, that privatisation of water supplies may reduce access to water by some of the poorest people rather than increase it. They still want to see robust international treaties to regulate industry.

Others take comfort in the fact that the Summit was a broad-based social project, allowing participants to develop 'partnership initiatives' between countries or regions as well as with other interested groups.

Climate change

Meanwhile, discussions on climate change were largely put outside the frame by United States' resistance to any discussion of the Kyoto protocol and United States and Australian refusal to ratify it.

In the event, Russia and China indicated that they would ratify the treaty following a rousing speech by Tony Blair, thus providing hope that it would come into law by the end of the year. Unfortunately the world is still waiting for Russia to make up its mind.

The British prime minister rallied support for the treaty by emphasising that it was only a first tiny move in an essential step-change in energy use.

Blair, like a few other leaders, took some time to see the realities of life in Southern Africa and others must momentarily have glimpsed the great march of the poor on the Summit. Blair repeated his promise to increase aid to Africa to £1 billion by 2005. Otherwise there were few hard promises of aid to back up agreement that Africa needed special attentlon. Tackling poverty

Many European NGOs are distressed at the inability of such leaders to prevent the talks from limiting efforts to improve the lives of the majority of poor people in the interests of the trade agenda.

One such issue, relating to health services,had held up final agreement on the action plan, when the United States and some of the more conservative states objected to a clauseon the rights of women to contraception and safe abortion. The United States' objection was only withdrawn when it was pointed out that its alternative wording would give tacit approval to local traditions such as genital mutilation.

Indeed, 'population' which was fairly centre-stage at Rio received not a mention in Johannesburg - a fact which has not gone unnoticed by agencies such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation. As the Federation's Director-General, Steven Sinding, has pointed out, population and all the related questions of women's education, reproductive health, poverty and environmental wellbeing, are central to sustainable development. According to Charles Secrett, then director of Friends of the Earth, the endplay of the summit was "a damning indictment of governments who protested they believed in sustainable development. This is no more than a world trade takeover of the earth summit political process."

John Rowley is Editor-in-Chief of Planet 21

Related links:

Voices from the Summit

Johannesburg Summit 2002

Host Country Official Website.