What future for the planet, now?

Posted: 9 September 2002

Author Info: Claude Martin is Director General of WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development has ended with a compromise plan that merely maintains the status quo. What then is the future of global efforts to eradicate poverty and protect the environment, asks Claude Martin.

In response to calls to reduce humanity's impact on the planet, NGOs have often been accused of wanting people go back into caves. Ironically, my feeling at the end of this World Summit is that out of short-term economic interests, some governments have withdrawn into their own national caves - a position that will only increase our devastating impact.

Under mandate by a 1999 UN General Assembly resolution, world leaders in Johannesburg were supposed to come up with an action plan to fix the problems with Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development, poverty eradication, and environment protection adopted by more than 170 governments at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago.

Race to the bottom

But negotiations over ten days more often resembled a "race to the bottom" than any real attempt to move forward. While in their speeches world leaders emphasized the importance of global sustainable development, in the negotiating rooms many countries worked to protect their own interests by preventing the Summit from reaching new targets and timetables.

The compromises and weakening of language in the Plan of Implementation were to such an extent that in some cases it actually went back on previous commitments.

One example of this is the section on energy. The effects of climate change - rising sea levels, more frequent and intense extreme weather events, and adverse effects on a variety of ecosystems - should serve to emphasize the need for a multilateral system to address such global issues.

Fossil fuel interests

However, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Canada, and Australia managed to protect their fossil fuel interests. The Plan of Implementation merely reiterates agreements made over the past several years and includes no targets or timetables of any kind for renewable energy. This not only fails to address climate change, but comes at the expense of the 2 billion people on the planet with no access to energy services.

The summit's action plan on trade and globalization is equally unsatisfactory.

It fails to realize that the World Trade Organization (WTO)-driven agenda for globalization doesn't necessarily work in favour of the poor and the natural environment. It fails to restate the Precautionary Principle - a crucial tenet of Agenda 21 - and it fails to ensure that international environmental treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol are protected by WTO rules on free trade.

In addition, there are no references to Sustainability Impact Assessments. It is remarkable that at a Summit on sustainable development, governments have failed to meaningfully address the issue of subsidies that support environmentally destructive practices.

The vision was lost

Generally, for each of the issues covered by the Summit, the results reflect a few countries' narrow interests rather than the interests of the large majority of countries who would like to see action - not to speak of civil society, which has engaged very constructively in the process. The final outcome is that the Summit failed to take the action needed to reduce the unsustainable production and consumption that is impoverishing our planet and the people who live on it.

Governments should be the legitimate voice of people and should recognize the great differences between nations, cultures, and economic circumstances. They should act in solidarity rather than divide and rule. For this to happen, the world needs clear objectives, targets, and timetables! But the dynamics of negotiation meant that bold visions were lost. The result was the lowest common denominator.

A way forward

The disappointing official Summit result, however, does not mean that this event was not useful. In the preparations for Johannesburg and during the Summit, we saw a number of governments stepping forward with progressive proposals and showing a willingness for leadership that goes beyond their economic interests. And, contrary to the commonly held view, we saw many companies working alongside NGOs for a clear set of rules and operating principles. An unprecedented diversity of new, positive public-private partnerships and local initiatives was triggered by the Summit process.

So, disappointing as the Summit has been, we see opportunities and a way forward that will not allow the laggards to jeopardize the prospects of the world.

We envisage new constellations of enlightened governments, intergovernmental institutions, environmental and development NGOs, forward-looking companies, and creative thinkers, who will address the issues left unresolved in Johannesburg.

We foresee that such groups and alliances will engage in sustainable development programmes and forge new policy alliances which can mitigate the current flaws in the multilateral system.

I believe that most people share a common concern for future generations. As the pressure on natural resources rises and the inequities sharpen, this will foster a further growth of NGOs. People will look to leaders from all sectors of society who make a leap forward, and commit to concrete solutions based on an ethical long-term interest for the planet and its people.