: Magazine : Back
Issues : Nov/Dec 2002 : Commentary
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 worlds 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 its
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 Annans 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
partnershipsamong 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 administrations policies,
noting that their stance will ultimately harm U.S. business interests.
Says Stephen Mills, director of the Sierra Clubs 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 dont
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 nations
environmental policies care more about protecting business as usual
than improving conditions for the worlds 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
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 sethalving
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 2015seem somehow inadequate.
Do 1.2 billion people really have to wait more than 12 years to get
What happened in Johannesburg matters, maybe not so much for what
it did, but for what it didnt 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 didnt 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. Weour nation and each one of usmust
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