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World: Earth Summit Concludes -- Was It Charade Or Turning Point?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The United Nations Earth Summit on Sustainable Development is drawing to an end today in Johannesburg, South Africa. For almost two weeks, hundreds of delegates battled to strike agreements on sweeping plans to cut world poverty and save ecosystems. World leaders gave eloquent speeches, and many compromises were reached. But was the summit a charade or a turning point in humankind's relationship with the planet?

Prague, 4 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Earth Summit dedicated to alleviating world poverty and saving the battered environment was held, ironically, at a place known as the "richest square mile in Africa."

The Sandton Convention Center is set in an exclusive suburb of Johannesburg, the money-minded city which sprouted out of the South African countryside after a gold rush in the 1880s. The convention halls are surrounded by four- and five-star hotels, corporate offices, and expensive shops.

The setting was in stark contrast to the theme of the summit -- namely, how to alleviate the grinding poverty afflicting billions of people in the world, and how to do it without further straining our fragile environment.

The world leaders attending the summit spoke dramatically of the issue's importance. As French President Jacques Chirac put it: "Our house is burning down, while we are looking elsewhere. Nature, mutilated and exploited, can no longer regenerate itself, and we are refusing to help it."

Helping the world was the very purpose of the Johannesburg summit, a so-called "implementation conference" in the international environmental process started in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago.

After heavy negotiations and compromises, the summit did produce an action program. That plan, which is due to be formally approved later today, sets a global target of halving the number of people without access to adequate sanitation by the year 2015. If successful, the plan would mean the improvement of some 1 billion lives.

On energy, the plan also agrees on a "substantial increase" in the use of renewable energy like solar and wind power. It also agrees to heightened measures to support biodiversity, including a clause supporting the rights of indigenous people to benefit from products made from forest plants and animals.

In trade matters, the plan foresees steps to cut agricultural subsidies in the developed world, which are blamed for driving farmers in developing countries out of business. It also sets out a new type of partnership arrangement, between the public and private sectors, on environmental improvement.

On air pollution, two key countries, Russia and Canada, announced they will ratify the Kyoto treaty, which is designed to cut the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warning. China announced it has already ratified the treaty.

For United Nations spokeswoman Susan Markham, all this was enough to declare the summit a "rip-roaring success." She tells RFE/RL: "We have reached agreement on the negotiations, and on the outcome document. We have had more than 60 partnership arrangements made here -- and they are really important, because this is what the legacy of this conference will be -- that governments, businesses, nongovernment organizations, and the United Nations have joined forces to actually implement projects on the ground which will benefit real people on the ground after Johannesburg."

Markham says this new partnership concept is meant to replace the old, failed idea of the developed world simply giving aid to governments in developing countries. This new and purportedly more efficient way of improving the environment, she says, is really "sustainable development," and will be remembered as one of the key achievements of the Johannesburg summit.

Not everyone was as rosy in their outlook. A number of major environmental groups regard the gathering largely as a failure. A typical comment comes from George Chapman, spokesman for the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF): "Basically, what has happened is that they have returned to decisions made in other fora, and after lengthy negotiations and discussions have reconfirmed things that have already been decided. It hardly needed a summit of world leaders to come together to do that."

One particular concern of the green groups is that the summit set no specific target for the increased use of renewable energy sources. After difficult negotiations, the European Union dropped its aim of having 15 percent of energy needs covered by renewable sources by 2010. The United States and oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia successfully resisted the inclusion of specific targets, saying they were unrealistic.

Chapman says of that outcome: "It takes us no further forward. It is basically a reiteration of the status quo. It does not prevent the proliferation of fossil-fuel technology, and instead of moving strongly toward renewables, it maintains the present trend and it does not oblige anybody to make much of a difference."

Chapman says despite the fact that Johannesburg was meant to be about implementation, the result of the meeting has been so "light in content" that it is hard to see where actual action will take place.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a speech to the summit, defended the United States from criticism that it is unenthusiastic about pursuing environmental causes. In his comments, which were sometimes subject to booing from protesters in the audience, Powell said: "The United States is taking action to meet environmental challenges, including global climate change. We are committed...[Interrupted by protesters in the audience]...we are committed not just to rhetoric and to various goals, we are committed to a billion-dollar program to develop and deploy advanced technologies to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions."

At any rate, one set of people who were definitely pleased with the summit were the retailers and vendors of Johannesburg. A spokeswoman for the local Chamber of Commerce, Maureen Brady, says businesses ranging from street vendors to restaurants to luxury-goods shops have had a major financial boost. Delegates, she said, seemed "in a shopping mood": "There is a flea market displaying arts and crafts from all our regions and provinces, and I chatted to some of the vendors there and they said they were doing very good business."

Time will tell if years from now the Johannesburg Earth Summit will be remembered for more than the African artifacts gathering dust in the corners of delegates' homes around the world.

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