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On the Green Road from Rio to Johannesburg

The UN summit in Johannesburg next week has been dubbed "Rio + 10" or "Earth Summit 2". But what has happened to the lofty promises made at Rio? Has the global environment changed for the better in the past ten years?

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Environment matters - the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu near Cusco, Peru

Critical voices even before start of summit

Despite the sheer scale of the Johannesburg summit, some fear this year's conference won't bear as much fruit as its predecessor in Rio.

"The earth summit (in Rio) was a success because it put the environment on the global political map, it made key policy decisions and set up institutions to start to deliver them," said Jamie Pittock of the World Wildlife Fund.

He cites the framework conventions on climate change and biological diversity as examples. "We would all have liked progress to have been more rapid in the past decade, but the fact that we have those agreements and that those conventions are gradually being implemented is a success," he said.

Considerable achievements at Rio

To begin with, the Earth Summit established the Rio Declaration, a set of 27 principles defining the rights and responsibilities of the states in regard to the environment. This was designed to be a global environmental bill of rights.

The Rio Declaration has been hailed as being progressive by green groups, but has been largely forgotten in favour of Agenda 21.

Agenda 21 is a 40 chapter blueprint outlining a plan of action for sustainable development. It contains over 2,500 recommendations -- including detailed proposals on how to reduce wasteful consumption patterns, combat poverty, protect the atmosphere, oceans and bio-diversity and promote sustainable agriculture.

Agenda 21 was unique in that it was not restricted to national governments. 6,000 cities and towns adopted the proposals in a practical translation of the "think globally and act locally" idea.

Environmentalists fault Agenda 21

However, the plan was criticised by environmentalists who said Agenda 21 was a vague setof goals lacking clear implementation plans and binding legal requirements.

"Positive direction decisions that have resulted from the Rio summit have put the world in a slightly better direction than we would be in if these agreements had never been made," said Daniel Mittler, an organizer for Friends of the Earth Summit.

"But there have also been a lot of failures. The picture we see is still dramatic and Agenda 21 has clearly not lived up to being a blueprint for a sustainable planet which it was billed to be in 1992."

Landmark bio- diversity convention born in Rio

Nonetheless, the ideas for two major United Nations conventions were born out of Rio -- the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Climate Change which led to the Kyoto protocol.

The Biological Diversity Convention has been ratified by 183 nations and came into effect in 1993. It obliges countries to protect plant and animal species from extinction through habitat preservation and other means.

But its implementation record remains poor. Half the world's wetlands have been destroyed, most of them in the decade since Rio, and 12 percent of bird species alone are threatened with extinction.

"Between 1980 and 1995, for example, the extent of the world's forests decreased by an area roughly the size of Mexico," said Mittler. "So the fact that we have a global agreement on bio-diversity hasn't prevented the loss of bio-diversity globally.

In 2000, the World Conservation Union concluded that the extent of the world's estimated 11,000 threatened species are critically endangered. That means we are about to lose them."

Genesis of climate change convention in Rio

The Framework Convention on Climate Change was the highest profile agreement to emerge from the Rio summit.

It led to the signing of the Kyoto protocol -- a legally binding treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below the levels emitted in 1990. For Kyoto to come into force, 55 countries representing 55 percent of the industrialised countries have to make the treaty part of their domestic law.

Only Japan and the European Union have ratified the Kyoto protocol. And the United States -- the largest single air polluter -- has rejected the treaty outright saying it is unfair as
it excludes developing countries.

"If it is true that man-made emissions are contributing to climate change and that we need to try to remedy that, then the Kyoto protocol is not an adequate vehicle to get there," said Margot Thorning, the chief economist at the Council for Capital Formation in Washington.

"It won't really materially reduce the growth of greenhouse gases because the new emitters of greenhouse gases where the greenhouse gases are going up sharply -- like India, China, Brazil, Indonesia and other parts of the world -- are not constrained in terms of how fast their greenhouse gas emissions grow."

Humans responsible for climate change?

In the ten years since Rio global emissions of carbon – widely accepted as causing global warming - have increased by 400 million tonnes. In other words, global emissions have risen by 9 percent rather than decreasing by the roughly 7 percent target set by the Kyoto protocol.

And 2002 is becoming the second warmest year ever since accurate records were kept in the 1850s. David Griggs from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that there is no doubt that the world’s climate has changed.

" The global temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees, sea level has risen between 10 and 20 centimetres over the last 100 years, sea ice has retreated, arctic ice has retreated, glaciers have retreated. The number of indicators that climate has changed are just so many. What is much more difficult to assess is whether human beings are causing that."

He said the IPCC after a careful assessment of observations, models and future projections has concluded that it is likely that most of the observed warming over the last fifty years is due to human influence.

Depleting forest cover

The world’s forests also figured at the Rio summit and it was decided to create a foundation for an international convention on Forests. An intergovernmental panel on Forests was established and adopted over one hundred action proposals.

Yet until now no legal framework has been established. In the meanwhile forest cover has been disappearing at an alarming rate.

Between 1985 and 1995 an area as large as Mexico was deforested. In 2000 the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation FAO cites a global loss of forested area of 2.2 percent.

But according to the World Resources Institute that estimate could be conservative as it includes plantation forests.
WRI's own estimates which exclude these plantation forests would double the natural forest loss in tropical Asia and temperate Latin America.

Johannesburg: just talk and no action?

As all eyes turn to the Johannesburg summit next week, the United Nations is eager to quell critical voices suggesting that Johannesburg will be nothing more than a voluble conference resulting in little.

Jan Pronk, the United Nations special envoy to the summit, said "We have too many summits, too many talking shops, and that's the reason why at this particular conference we have to concentrate on agreements to act. Otherwise such conferences wouldn't make much sense anymore. We shouldn't decide to come back in another five years, because we run from one conference to the other. We shouldn't come back until 2015 because that is the time span for action on the basis of the agreements of the last decade."

The UN's draft plan for implementation which will be discussed at Johannesburg is already criticised by environment groups for being too weak. They argue for Johannesburg to succeed there need to be firm targets, financial commitments to meet these goals and enforcement mechanisms to implement them.

Germany's former Environment Minister and the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Klaus Töpfer, agrees.

"Ten years before gave us clear and wonderful visionary texts and declarations. But unluckily it was not integrated enough how to implement this and therefore Johannesburg must be the summit of implementation and not another declaration."

  • Date 28.08.2002
  • Author Jennifer Macey
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2a8D
  • Date 28.08.2002
  • Author Jennifer Macey
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2a8D