Earth Summit problems may prove unsurmountable


The second Earth Summit, scheduled for Johannesburg in late August, is in danger of collapse before it ever gets started, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

RIO+10 seemed like such a good idea. Ten years after the euphoria of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UN is convening a World Summit on Sustainable Development aimed at "rehabilitating our one and only planet", in the words of the Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The summit, to be held in Johannesburg at the end of August, is seen by Mr Annan as "a chance to restore the momentum that had been felt so palpably after the Earth Summit" and tackle problems arising from poverty, unsustainable consumption and environmental degradation.

"New efforts are needed because the present model of development, which has brought privilege and prosperity to about 20 per cent of humanity, has also exacted a heavy price." Yet the environment "is still treated as an unwelcome guest" at talks on the global economy.

But the omens are bleak. Even today, on World Environment Day, ministers and officials from more than 140 countries are still haggling over a programme for the Johannesburg summit at a preparatory session in the Indonesian resort of Bali.

Real progress in tackling the five strategic areas identified by Mr Annan - water and sanitation, energy, health, agricultural productivity and biodiversity, shortened to the acronym WEHAB, must be made in Bali if the second Earth Summit is to be a success.

"The World Summit on Sustainable Development has not been called to endorse "business as usual", its secretary-general, Mr Nitin Desai, told the opening session last week. "It has been called because people want change. And this summit must signal a real commitment to change."

By the end of the Bali session on Friday, governments are expected to agree on an implementation plan that Mr Desai hopes will become known as the Bali Commitment for Sustainable Development and on the elements for a political declaration to be adopted in Johannesburg.

"It is time to take the road not taken," he said early last week, paraphrasing poet Robert Frost. "It is time to try new approaches that can improve the lives of everyone without destroying the environment. If we try, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose."

There is little sign of that, however. Having observed the proceedings for a week, Greenpeace joined with Friends of the Earth International and the World Wide Fund for Nature Conservation in sending a salvo to Mr Annan.

"Unless Kofi Annan intervenes to raise the political stakes, the Earth Summit will end up as Rio minus 10, not Rio plus 10," said Mr Remi Parmentier, political director of Greenpeace International, one of whose ships, MV Arctic Sunrise, is docked in Bali harbour for the session.

Warning that the Johannesburg summit was in danger of collapse, Kim Carstensen, head of WWF's delegation in Bali, said the EU and G7 countries "must ensure this conference has a benefit for people and the planet. Otherwise they will be caving in to the Bush administration."

Mr Daniel Mittler, summit co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, was even more exasperated. "People all over the world are protesting against corporate globalisation but governments continue to sacrifice the Earth Summit on the altar of Exxon, Monsanto and co," he declared.

The three environmental groups said Mr Annan's vision that Johannesburg would "write a new and hopeful chapter in natural and human history" was being ignored by governments that continued to put globalisation before the interests of people and the planet.

Quoting Dr Emil Salim, the Indonesian chairman of the summit's preparatory committee in Bali, who said that "if we continue as we have done in the past, we will sink", their letter to the UN Secretary General baldly stated: "Mr Annan, the Earth Summit is sinking."

It is now widely recognised that, despite its ringing declarations, the Rio summit in 1992 failed to deliver the real changes necessary to protect the environment. And since then, political will to tackle the issues has waned while corporate influence has grown.

Though the framework for sustainable development was agreed in Rio, the cumulative results of efforts to put it into action have been far from satisfactory.

Most of the objectives of Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development that was adopted in Rio, have not been met.

The US has made it clear that it does not want any