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German Minister Keeps his Faith in Upcoming Earth Summit

Will the much-awaited Earth Summit in Johannesburg yield results? German environment minister Trittin is hopeful despite growing differences between the EU, the US and the developing world.


German Environment minister Juergen Trittin believes that all is not lost at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg

A decade after the landmark Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro first put environmental issues on the global political agenda, the next UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), kicking off in Johannesburg on August 26, is expected to take things a step further.

The agenda will be stretched as a flurry of topics clamour for attention, ranging from poverty, the environment and energy politics to water economics, globalisation and sustainable development.

Hopes dim for Earth Summit

Despite the high hopes pinned on the summit, there’s no denying that the initial enthusiasm about tackling global environmental problems has waned as sharp differences between the United States, the European Union and the developing world have emerged.

So much so that there are now fears that the Johannesburg summit might merely echo broad principles adopted by different countries rather than bring about real change.

German environment minister Jürgen Trittin, who is at a meeting in New York today to prepare the ground for the Johannesburg summit, said at a press conference that the summit can not be allowed to be dominated by expressions of overall goals. He said binding environmental and political aims as well as clear targets and timetables need to be agreed upon.

One of the key proposals by the German government and the EU is to increase the use of renewable energies to generate electricity by 15 percent by the year 2010. Another is to halve the number of people who have live with poor sanitation and have no access to clean drinking water.

The proposals are mainly directed at rich industrial nations, which Trittin said are believed to be mainly responsible for global climate change.

Opening markets

One potential sticking point is a call from developing countries for a greater commitment by richer nations to open their markets to trade and the transfer of technology.

But last month at a meeting on the island of Bali, a US administration official made it clear that the United States was not prepared to go beyond commitments it had already made.

Trittin admitted that in this respect it wasn’t just the United States holding firm. Some Europeans are also reluctant to open their markets.

"The main problem is the huge subsidies that some industrial countries give some of their economic sectors. OECD countries spend $335 million (331.9 million euro) a year for agricultural subsidies alone, preventing several products from developing countries getting access to the market", he said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

In Europe, Trittin said, France, Ireland and Spain were especially reluctant to give up their agricultural subsidy systems.

Will the US get on board?

There is one big question on many minds: can the US and EU start reading off the same page when it comes to the Earth's environmental future?

So far the US has shied away from any kind of binding commitment regarding environmental protection and has incurred the wrath of several developing and European countries who blame it for putting the brakes on environmentally friendly policies on water and sanitation, energy, agricultural productivity, bio-diversity and health.

Trittin told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, "the US as usual has problems with such multilateral commitments".

In a sign that the US may maintain its rigid stance, US Commerce Undersecretary Grant Aldonas told Reuters on Tuesday that next month’s summit may not produce a concrete plan for sustainable development, but still could be a successful breeding ground for new ideas.

Trittin sanguine despite differences

Despite the yawning gap between US and European viewpoints, Trittin says he sees hope that a compromise might be reached with the Americans.

"Once the Europeans reach an agreement with the developing countries about access to markets, it will be easier to spur the Americans to commit themselves to concrete aims," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. After all the US wants to be successful in Johannesburg too."