‘Disaster averted; opportunity missed’ was the way Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor of the Independent on Sunday, summed up the Earth Summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, when he spoke on ‘Outcomes of the Earth Summit’ at a Greencoat Forum at the IofC centre in London
‘Disaster averted; opportunity missed’ was the way Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor of the Independent on Sunday, summed up the Earth Summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, when he spoke on ‘Outcomes of the Earth Summit’ at a Greencoat Forum at the IofC centre in London, 17th September. Also reporting back from the summit was Krish Raval, chief executive of the leadership development programme Learn to Lead, who enthralled the packed audience with his account of his meeting with Nelson Mandela at Liliesleaf Farm, the former hideout of the ANC high command during the 1960s, in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg.
Lean said that there was a conviction among many in Johannesburg that, ‘If we can deliver on terrorism we can deliver on poverty’. He recalled the promises made at earlier summits, including the Kyoto Protocol which agreed a 5 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions in 10 years, at a time when a 50 per cent reduction was needed. Yet during the 1990s, he said, ‘every country cut its aid programme except Denmark’, contrary to the UN’s aid target of 0.7 per cent of national GDPs. He emphasised the vital influence of public opinion on politicians to ‘legitimise their own highest aspirations’. Chancellor Gordon Brown, for instance, often cited the Jubilee 2000 debt remission campaign to argue the case internationally.
Lean said that the Bush administration had surprised the world at the earlier Monterrey summit in Mexico, where the USA had promised an extra $5 billion in aid, not least thanks to the pressure of the Irish pop star Bono, who had persuaded Republican senator Jesse Helms of Jesus’ imperative towards the poor. Helms had been moved to tears by Bono.
The preparations in Bali towards the Earth Summit, ‘hit the buffers’, Lean continued, with some 400 points of disagreement unresolved. There was an element that wanted to see an end to multilateralism. ‘The miracle was that that didn’t happen’ in Johannesburg.
The outstanding achievement of the Earth Summit was the agreement to cut by half the number of people—currently 2.4 billion—without adequate sanitation.
But the great disappointment of the summit was the failure to reach agreement on renewable energy, at a time when 2 million people a year die from the fumes of burning wood and dung. ‘Electricity is a powerful tool of development,’ Lean said. A target of reaching a billion people by 2010 with renewable energy, from the sun and the wind, ‘was killed by OPEC’, even though the group of 77 developing countries wanted it.
Lean praised the head of Ethiopia’s Environment Agency whose impassioned speech successfully argued that the World Trade Organisation should not have precedence over environmental treaties. This showed ‘how one man can turn a situation around’, Lean commented.
Another ‘intriguing’ aspect of the summit, Lean continued, was the role of business in development partnerships, involving a world business council for sustainable development. And the major energy companies such as Shell and BP were already transforming themselves. The big question was how the emphasis on corporate social responsibility will ‘translate into action’. A group of 60 young managers in Johannesburg from major international companies were looking into this, Raval reported.
This was the last earth summit of its kind, and the priority now was on implementation. An immediate outcome was the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the UN’s Development Programme, as a ‘campaign manager and score keeper’ on nations’ track record of implementation, following the summit. His task will be ‘naming, praising and shaming’, said Lean, and his first report was due to go to the UN in September.
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