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UN: Ahead Of Eco-Summit, Agency Issues Warning On Planet

  • Jeremy Bransten

The United Nations Environment Program, in a major report on the state of the earth's environment, warns that unless nations start implementing greener policies now, the world's oceans, forests, and wildlife resources risk permanent degradation -- which will carry grave consequences for all of mankind.

Prague, 27 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It has been 10 years since the United Nations hosted its summit on the environment and development -- the so-called "Rio Earth Summit" -- in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.

In their final declaration, leaders pledged to make environmental protection an "integral part of the development process" to ensure the sustainability of the planet's resources.

As world leaders prepare for another ecology summit -- this time in Johannesburg at the end of the summer -- the UN's environmental agency is warning that few of the promises made in Rio in 1992 have been kept. The agency, in a wide-ranging report, says hundreds of millions of lives are in danger unless countries start putting the environment at the core of economic policies.

Ron Witt, regional European coordinator for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), summed up for RFE/RL how the world has fared ecologically since 1992: "On the whole we've seen a further major degradation of land surface areas, we've seen a further disappearance of forest and other natural resources, we've seen continuing negative impacts on biodiversity in much of the world, a disappearance of additional species and further species moved onto the list of endangered animals and plants. Coastal and marine areas have continued to suffer much greater degradation from problems like waste and sewage and human impacts on coastal areas. And so, in many, many ways the environment certainly has not improved."

Kelly Rigg, international campaign coordinator for the environmental group Greenpeace, makes a similar assessment. Rigg blames leaders of the industrialized world, especially the current U.S. president, for a lack of leadership: "George W. Bush said it all when he said, basically, 'We're not prepared to commit to anything which will affect the American way of life.' And that's what you see in most governments: a sort of 'Us First' mentality which has resulted in very little progress."

According to UNEP's State of the Environment Report, a quarter of the world's mammals are under threat of extinction and nearly a third of the world's fish stocks are classified as depleted.

The UN says at least 1.1 billion of the planet's 6 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and double that number lack access to improved sanitation. Half of the world's rivers are already moderately to seriously polluted.

UNEP, in its report, presents four alternative development scenarios over the next 30 years. In the most optimistic version, countries immediately realize the enormous economic and social cost of not implementing environmentally aware policies and begin to change their ways -- leading to a stabilization of carbon dioxide emissions by 2032, reforestation, improvements in water quality and a rapid reduction in global hunger and communicable diseases. In the most pessimistic version -- where its says the earth is headed -- more than half of the population will be living with drought by 2032, 70 percent of animal species will be under threat of extinction, and 70 percent of the land surface will have been degraded.

Ron Witt of UNEP says: "We need to make some rather stark choices and the sooner we begin taking a more prudent approach to the future of our planet and the use of natural resources etc..., making better policy plans at the global level, at the national level, and even at the local level, then there's greater hope for the future of the planet -- a viable future for the planet."

The upcoming Johannesburg summit, which is scheduled to open on 26 August and run until 4 September, is aimed at formulating such policies. But according to Rigg, the Greenpeace campaign coordinator, the pre-summit signs are not good: "What we're seeing in fact is pretty much business as usual -- a deterioration of the negotiating documents from having specific targets, timetables, commitments. Most of those are disappearing out. A few countries: the United States, Canada, Australia, and a few of their allies have pretty much made sure that there will be no real commitments, political targets or timetables. They want to rely instead on voluntary partnerships, agreements with industry etc, which unfortunately, I think, will deliver business as usual."

The irony of development is that as poor countries begin to modernize -- moving from subsistence economies to globally connected marketplaces -- environmental woes tend to increase. Ecological concerns are often last in the minds of people who are eager for the consumer rewards brought by "Westernization."

While people's lives may indeed improve in the short run, development which comes at the price of environmental degradation can exact painful long-term consequences. One example of this was the catastrophic flooding which hit China in 1998. The floods, which the Chinese leadership later acknowledged were largely caused by massive deforestation, caused an estimated $20 billion in damage and destroyed the homes of hundreds of thousands of people.

But Rigg says it is not fair for people in the industrialized world to blame the Chinese and other developing nations for ruining the environment. Often, with little help from the outside, they have few alternatives. "I don't think it's fair to blame the poor for their own problems. I think they're stuck in a cycle that they can't get out of very readily and one of the things we're campaigning on, for example, is the need to supply affordable, clean, renewable energy to the 2 billion of the world's poorest people who are currently without modern energy services. Now, if you're sitting there and you have no modern energy services, the women in the family are out collecting firewood -- first of all, they're having a big impact on the local environment, but it also means that they're also not doing other things like getting an education, working with their children to get an education, that sort of thing. And that just perpetuates the cycle of poverty."

Witt, at the UNEP, says the industrialized world -- Western Europe in this case -- has demonstrated that good policies can reverse environmental degradation. Since the 1970s, when strict limits on toxic emissions were imposed on industry, the continent's air and water quality have markedly improved: "For example, in the European region, which I'm most familiar with and operating in, we see that policies -- properly conceived and properly implemented -- can have quite a positive effect. Two of the major problems that Europe was facing, which have since been largely been mitigated, are the atmospheric deposition -- so-called acid rain -- and impacts that this had on natural vegetation, forests in particular. This is an area where there's been great improvement. Also the overall water-quality situation in most of Europe has improved over this time period because of fairly strict policy measures which were followed through on."

Industrial leaders, for their part, argue that voluntary agreements between the business sector and governments on the environment are the only practicable solution -- especially in the developing world. When environmental laws in a particular country or region are too stringent, they note, industries tend to move to more accommodating markets, resulting in a loss of investment which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Many industrialists also argue that only after a certain amount of wealth has been accumulated can countries afford the luxury of stringent environmental regulation -- as Europe has done.

But Rigg says the tendency, driven by economic globalization, to let multinational corporations in part regulate themselves is having a detrimental impact. One of Greenpeace's goals for the Johannesburg summit is to have governments reassume more regulatory functions. Rigg cites the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, where some 5,000 people were killed by a chemical cloud released after an explosion at the American-owned factory, as an example of the damage industry can cause when it is not reined in by government-imposed environmental regulations.

"What we're seeing over the whole world is a move by corporations to replace what used to be the role of governments. Governments seem quite willing and quite happy to leave business to solve all of these problems, through investment, through money. There is no accountability for these corporations anywhere and governments are allowing them -- literally in places -- to get away with murder. For example, the Bhopal crisis, you may remember that from so many years ago, and yet people are still dying from cancer there. The Bhopal site has never even been cleaned up. So, we think that one of the major things which should come out of this conference is an agreement to negotiate some sort of corporate accountability and liability instrument."

This week, 6,000 delegates from more than 100 countries are meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali to try to bridge differences ahead of the Johannesburg summit on issues related to development and the environment. It is a tall order but environmentalist say if difficult choices are not made now, it is not just distant future generations who will pay an incalculable price for our lack of vision, but we ourselves -- in just a few short years.