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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2002 : Commentary


Why Johannesburg Matters

What happened and didn't happen at the WSSD underscored one prevailing concept: the need for a shared vision and a new paradigm.

By Penny Bonda, FASID

During the next 30 years, the world’s population will grow by two billion people. Most of the effects will be felt in developing countries where water shortages are becoming critical, forests are being felled and fisheries are being degraded. We in the developed nations have wreaked the most damage. Consumption is at record levels and continues to grow unabated. Emissions are being pumped into the atmosphere that threatens us all with global climate change, the results of which we can barely grasp or dare to imagine.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) that was held in Johannesburg this fall was an attempt to change all that before it’s too late. Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, said that the summit “aimed to bring an end to wanton acts of destruction and the blithe self-delusion that keeps too many from seeing the perilous state of the Earth and its people. It hoped to bring home the uncomfortable truth that the model of development that has prevailed for so long has been fruitful for the few and flawed for the many.”

How did WSSD do at achieving Annan’s goals? It depends who you ask. Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), described the outcome as satisfactory and views what has been delivered as a step forward. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a coalition of 160 international companies, believes that one of the clear successes of the summit is the realization that environmental progress can only be made through partnerships—among governments and between governments, businesses, NGOs and local communities. Speaking for its members, it stated that “much of the follow-up will fall to business which has the capacity, technology and resources to get the job done. So we are rolling up our sleeves for action and creating an enabling environment for development.”

There is other clear evidence that partnerships may be the way of future progress. The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and UNEP received more than 120 nominations from 37 countries for the 2002 World Summit Business Awards for Sustainable Development Partnerships. Thirty-two partnerships were formally recognized during the summit including one to Starbucks Coffee and Conservation International. The collaboration between Starbucks and CI encourages sustainable agricultural practices and the protection of biodiversity through the production of shade grown coffee and the institution of coffee purchasing guidelines. Said Glenn Prickett, vice president at Conservation International and executive director of the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, “This award demonstrates that the conservation community and the private sector can successfully collaborate to create a net benefit for business and the environment.”

Taking a step in the right direction, two former adversaries, WBCSD and Greenpeace, issued a joint call for action for the creation of an international framework to combat climate change and called on others in both the public and private sectors to join them. Others were critical of the lack of attention paid to this issue at the summit, putting the blame at the feet of the United States.

The U.S. apparently was at odds with some of the key points that the nearly 200 nations attending the WSSD agreed upon. While pleased that agreement was reached on the need to move away from fossil fuels and to improve access to renewable energy like solar and wind, The World Resources Institute delegation, for example, was particularly disappointed over the failure of the governments to set specific targets and timetables, pointing a finger at the U.S. and the oil producing countries who lobbied hard against them despite strong support from European and several Latin American countries. In fact, the Worldwatch Institute believes that the summit revealed widening splits between nations, with Europe far more willing than the United States to adopt tough new environmental standards.

The Sierra Club expressed surprise at the degree to which other world leaders are willing to reject the Bush administration’s policies, noting that their stance will ultimately harm U.S. business interests. Says Stephen Mills, director of the Sierra Club’s international program, “In effect what they have done is to insure that American business will follow, not lead the rest of the world.” According to one attendee, Stan Cox, a senior research scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, KS, the United States has been aggressive in opposing action on renewable energy, prevention of global warming, biodiversity protection and decent sanitation for people who don’t have it. He quotes one dumbfounded European delegate as saying, “We cannot understand why the United States, being a world leader, is taking such a harsh stance.”

The cynical explanation is that those in charge of setting our nation’s environmental policies care more about protecting business as usual than improving conditions for the world’s poor and preserving the Earth for future generations. As Cox puts it, the Bush strategy might work if we had a spare planet or two. But the choice is not between growth and the environment, between economic prosperity and global sustainability. Annan put it this way: “I hope corporations understand that the world is not asking them to do something different from their normal business; rather it is asking them to do their normal business differently.”

In reading through the mountains of material published on the WSSD it is difficult to find much optimism about the proceedings. Some called the agreements reached in Johannesburg weak and difficult to enforce. Yes, it is true that Brazil announced that it will protect nine million hectares of Amazon rainforest and that Russia said it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol. But the targets the summit set—halving the 2.4 billion people without sanitation in the Third World by 2015, minimizing the harmful effects from chemicals production by 2020 and halting the decline in fish stocks by 2015—seem somehow inadequate. Do 1.2 billion people really have to wait more than 12 years to get decent sanitation?

What happened in Johannesburg matters, maybe not so much for what it did, but for what it didn’t do. Hopes were high following the Rio Earth Summit 10 years ago, but many of the agreements reached there have not been implemented including those addressing sustainable development, biodiversity and climate change. Some say that the best that can be said about the intervening years between Rio and Johannesburg is that we didn’t lose any ground.

What must happen now is that the richest countries must lead by example, not by dismantling the normal ways of doing business, but by setting an example and assisting the poorer countries. We need a shared vision and a new paradigm. We—our nation and each one of us—must try and do better. Kofi Annan expressed his hope that the one outcome of the conference, the one concept that must take precedence over all others is responsibility: “for each other, for our planet and, most of all, for the future security and well-being of succeeding generations.”

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