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UN: Summit May Be 'Last Chance' To Set Reasonable Course For Environmental Protection

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development opens in Johannesburg on 26 August. More than 100 world leaders will attend the 10-day summit, and scores of environmental activists, businesspeople, and protesters are also gathering in the South African city to listen to the deliberations and press their own views.

Prague, 23 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development is being called a last chance for the international community to set a reasonable course on environmental protection, or face the possible collapse of the planet's ecosystems.

UN Undersecretary-General Nitin Desai, who will chair the summit, said there is deterioration instead of progress in many areas of the environment.

The Johannesburg meeting, he said, is the last practical opportunity to retrieve this lost ground. A report issued by the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs, which Desai heads, says some 800 million people are chronically underfed, and almost half the world's population will soon be short of water. It also says indications of climate change are growing, with floods and droughts becoming more fierce, and sea levels rising.

As the spokesperson for the Greenpeace environmental group's delegation in Johannesburg, Susan Kavanagh, put it, "The floods in Europe recently are a clear indication of what the scientists have been warning about, so real action is needed right now."

In a separate report on world development, the World Bank says the Johannesburg summit must take the steps necessary to combat poverty and environmental degradation.

A spokesman for the sustainable-development network of the World Bank, Sergio Jellinek, gave a few more figures to show the extent of the slide in the environment. "In today's reality, air pollution is several times higher than the accepted standard, the emissions of carbon dioxide are up two-thirds from 1970, there is a shortage of water, 70 percent of fisheries are fully or over-exploited, [and] 20 percent of our tropical forest has been cleared since 1960," Jellinek said.

The question, said Jellinek, is how long can this continue before the ecological and social systems begin to wilt? He noted that the new World Bank report constructs a model scenario under which the world economy will continue to grow at a moderate but realistic rate of 3.3 percent per annum, up to 2050. "The world would reach an economy annually of $140 trillion. That is four times the size of the economy today. That obviously poses a series of risks in the sense of, how are we going to get there in terms of environmental and social sustainability?" Jellinek said.

That, basically, is the job of the Johannesburg summit, to map out a sustainable course, allowing continued economic growth but of a sort that does not destroy the planet we live on. An encouraging sign is that at a preparatory conference held on the Indonesian island of Bali, delegates agreed on about 80 percent of a key plan on how to implement the changes needed to achieve sustainable development.

But sources say the remaining 20 percent of the plan not yet finalized is important because it relates to issues of how to finance the switch to sustainable development and also difficult issues related to trade.

The Johannesburg summit has three major areas of business to accomplish. One is the action plan, which includes the program of implementation, along with the intergovernmental commitments to carry out that implementation. The actual subjects to be covered in the plan include measures for reducing global poverty and hunger, and the spread of the HIV virus, as well as provisions for clean water, sanitation, and energy to the poor on a sustainable basis.

The second major area of business is to agree on a political declaration.

The third is a document setting out partnerships for implementing the action plan with civil society, the private sector, multilateral organizations, and so forth. As Kavanagh of Greenpeace put it: "This is a really huge opportunity, and the way that the planet is suffering right now in terms of environment and development show that real action is needed right now. This is an opportunity that would be lost if those issues are not addressed here [in Johannesburg]."

Johannesburg, the largest city in southern Africa, is an appropriate setting for a summit dealing with poverty. Sprawling across South Africa's Highveld Plateau at an altitude of some 2,000 meters, the city displays a vast contrast in lifestyles. Many among the black population live meagerly in shacks in the endless and dreary townships that once were strictly segregated under the apartheid policy of racial separation. The many well-to-do areas are still inhabited mainly by whites, even though apartheid has been abolished.

The new apartheid dividing people is, of course, the wealth gap.

(The website for the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development is