Volume 15 Number 6
Disaster Averted, Opportunity Missed
01 December 2002

Award-winning environmental journalist Geoffrey Lean has seen Earth Summits come and go. On his return from Johannesburg in September, he spoke at a meeting at the Initiatives of Change centre in London. We print extracts:

It was a shame that the dates of the Earth Summit in Johannesburg were brought forward a week. The orginal plan, made long before the Twin Towers attack, was that it should end on 11 September 2002.

The date would have emphasized two things: the need to address the causes of terrorism as well as terrorism, and the importance of multilateralism in our interdependent world. Poverty and destitution may not necessarily provide the terrorists themselves - many of the hi-jackers of 11 September were middle-class Saudis - but they create the breeding ground which nurtures terrorism and reinforces the hopelessness which leads to violence.

The British Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said to me just before the summit, 'If we can get the world to deliver against terrorism, surely we can get it to deliver against poverty. If we don't, then people will get the message.'

And in the pre-summit issue of Our Planet, the magazine of the United Nations Environment Programme, Colin Powell made the point that sustainable development is not just a moral and humanitarian issue, but a strategic and security issue as well.

Johannesburg was the successor to the Rio Summit ten years ago. That was another huge event, with another 100 heads of state, another cliff-hanger, another event that got huge publicity around the world, with another Bush in the White House. Unlike his son 10 years later, George Bush senior came to the summit. He had two speeches in his pocket - an 'in your face' one and a constructive one. At the last minute he pulled out the constructive one.

Rio agreed a treaty on combating climate change, a treaty on biodiversity (addressing the extinction of wildlife), set the way for a treaty on desertification and agreed a document called Agenda 21, which was supposed to be a blueprint for sustainable development in the 21st Century. It was a remarkable achievement, but not much has happened since.

We have had the Kyoto protocol to the climate change treaty, which now looks as if it will go into force. But it will only, at best, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by five per cent over the next ten years - and the scientists say we must cut them by 60 per cent if we are to have any hope of even stabilizing global warming. Not a lot has happened on biodiversity. And while a good treaty was agreed on desertification, there's been no money to put it into practice.

The touchstone of everything agreed at Rio was that the developed world would increase aid to pay for these changes. Instead, aid has declined to its lowest ever level as a proportion of GNP. The Nineties were an extremely good decade for the rich world - yet every country except Denmark cut aid.


Meanwhile the crises have continued to grow. Global warming has now clearly taken hold. The warmest eight years on record have happened during the last ten; parts of the Antarctic ice-sheet keep collapsing into the sea; the Arctic ice-sheet is half its normal thickness. And these are just the effects of the pollution of the 1950s. The effects of 40 to 50 years' worth of increasing pollution have still to work their way through, even if we stop all emissions of greenhouse gases today.

Species loss continues to accelerate. Desertification blights one third of the world's land area. Forty per cent of the world's population now live in countries where water is scarce - and 66 per cent will by 2025.

And these multiple, interlinked, escalating crises always hit the poor worst - a central theme of the Johannesburg Summit.

Johannesburg was the best chance for 20 years to tackle the issue of world poverty. Development really came off the international agenda 20 years ago at another summit in Cancun in Mexico, which failed - as did attempts to revive the process later. World leaders tend to walk away from failure. One of the reasons the subject of world poverty has come back onto the agenda recently is the public demand focussed by the Jubilee 2000 campaign on debt relief.

As Johannesburg approached there were some hopeful signs. The Millennium Summit in 2000 agreed a whole series of goals to halve world poverty by 2050. Then, to everyone's surprise, at a summit in Monterey early in 2002, President Bush pledged an extra $5 billion in aid, and the Europeans more or less matched it.

Some of the thanks for this turnabout can go to the pop star Bono, who did not give up on the present US administration and went to meet some of the right-wing Republicans as Christian to Christian. He saw Jesse Helms, one of the most steadfast opponents of internationalism, and told him how many times poverty is mentioned in the Bible. Helms wept at the end of the meeting and began to press for aid increase. It's extraordinary what one person can do.

So there was a positive undercurrent at the beginning of 2002. But the process hit the buffers in June at a preparatory meeting in Bali. The participants left with 400 points of disagreement, which had to be sorted out in Johannesburg.
Warnings were coming from senior figures that the whole mulitilateral system would be at risk if Johannesburg broke down. In their view, international agreements on everything from arms control to human rights hung on Johannesburg succeeding.

There was an element in the American delegation who saw multilateralism as an unnecessary constraint on the world's remaining super-power. The miracle was that that their view did not prevail.

And what did we get in the end? A four-word summary would be, 'Disaster averted: opportunity missed.' For the results of Johannesburg have not measured up to the crises that the world is facing.

There was one big step forward: the new target of halving the number of people in the world with inadequate sanitation by 2015. That could make a huge difference, but it really was a corollary of another target that had already been accepted at the Millennium Summit.


The other big touchstone was renewable energy, which is more than tilting at windmills. Two million people die every year because they breathe in smoke from burning wood and dung in their homes. Gathering wood destroys trees and soil cover; gathering dung deprives the soil of fertility. These people can't be reached by oil, gas or nuclear power because you can't build the gridlines to get at them. But the sun and the wind are distributed free, and they're clean. So, by increasing renewable energy, you could tackle one of the most serious health problems, begin to power development and help to combat global warming.

Britain set up a study group on renewable energy under Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, who used to be the head of Shell, and an Italian civil servant. They came out with a recommendation for the G8 nations that a billion people should be reached with renewable energy by the end of the decade. But this initiative - along with others that followed it - was killed long before Johannesburg, largely by oil interests in the US and in the Middle East and elsewhere.

There was an agreement on fisheries, and on cutting the loss of species. There was movement towards looking at rules to regulate the activities of multinational companies, and towards focussing on overconsumption in the West as a cause of environmental degradation and poverty.

Tony Blair's contribution was extremely disappointing. He had been the first leader to say he would go to Johannesburg and he had sent John Prescott around the world to rally support for the summit. But then stories appeared in the press about Prescott going to Bali on a junket - though he didn't in fact go, and these meetings are more like a lower circle of hell. Blair got cold feet and decided to come only for a few hours, because he was afraid that the cost of his hotel room would be reported in the media. If he had stayed it might have made a difference.


The war with Iraq was another interesting subtext. Colin Powell, infinitely the most progressive member of the American administration, was booed and heckled, not by an audience of Greenpeace supporters, but an audience of heads of state and prime ministers. Blair was barracked. And the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister got a standing ovation. It shows how isolated the US and Britain have become.

But there were also encouraging things.

There were people who made a difference. The head of Ethiopia's Environment Agency, a slight, asthmatic man, made an impassioned speech at two crucial points and turned the whole conference behind him. It was a sign of how, even in the midst of very complex negotiations, one person with conviction and courage can change things round.

There was an amazing move forward on the Kyoto Treaty when the two countries on which its success depended, Canada and Russia, announced they would ratify it. It was encouraging to see environment and development pressure groups working together more closely. And some interesting partnerships emerged between businesses, pressure groups and governments.

Another interesting move was the UN's decision not to have any more summits until there's some sign that existing ageements have been implemented. The head of the United Nations Development Programme, Mark Malloch Brown, has been charged by Kofi Annan as campaign manager and score keeper. They will issue a report on every country, showing how far they have come towards the goals set by the Millennium Summit, praising those who are doing well and chiding those who are doing badly.

A colleague of mine said to me at the end, 'The summit document will be forgotten in a year. But it may prove a new way of beginning to handle international affairs.' And if that's so we may yet have something to be grateful for.

Geoffrey Lean is environment editor of the 'Independent on Sunday', UK, and editor of 'Our Planet'. His work has won him four major awards in the last two years, including the Martha Gellhorn Prize.

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