Earth Summit Founders, But There's Hope

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UN Secretary General Kofi Annan chairs a Future of Multilateralism event

Producer Quincy Jones managed, in the 1980s, to get the world's leading rock stars to sing "We Are the World" in perfect harmony — by insisting that they "check their egos at the door." But harmony has proved elusive at the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg — because the participant governments don't check their interests at the door. As 100 heads of state gathered for Wednesday's closing session, negotiators were still struggling after almost two weeks of horse-trading over the terms and provisions of a summit declaration that in the end will be as vague and anodyne as the lyrics of "We Are the World."

Glancing at the provisional agreements, it's not hard to see why environmentalist groups across the board have expressed disappointment. The delegates have agreed that humanity is eating too many fish, and that catches ought to be trimmed in order to sustain stocks. They've agreed, also, that more care ought to be taken in the disposal of hazardous chemicals; more use ought to be made of renewable energy sources such as solar-, wind- and hydro-electricity; and also that it would be a really good idea to try, by the year 2015, to get clean drinking water and sanitation to half of the 2.4 billion people on the planet who currently lack access to either.

But even going into the conference, there was widespread skepticism over whether the goals stated in such declarations (even if they did contain precise targets and timelines — which they don't — they're not enforceable, anyway) justify the environmental impact of the jet-fuel used to fly some 10,000 summiteers and about five times as many camp followers to South Africa for the event. Indeed, the Johannesburg summit was originally intended as a followup to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, whose lofty proclamations went the way of most lofty proclamations. The perennial failure of such summits to produce meaningful programs of action has prompted some observers to suggest that summitry itself may begin to breed cynicism. Environmentalist groups, however, tend to believe that the cynicism is actually sharpest among the participant governments, whose input often tends to reflect their own narrow economic concerns rather than those of the greater good they've ostensibly gathered to protect.

So, in Johannesburg, for example, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Japan and other major producers and consumers of oil joined forces to squelch a European Union initiative to set a target and a timeline for increasing the proportion of their energy needs derived from renewable sources. It's not hard to see why the Saudis — who sit on top of almost two thirds of the planet's known oil reserves — might balk at governments being urged to use tax incentives and subsidies to woo their consumers off of fossil fuels. Elsewhere, however, it was the EU in the environmentalists' doghouse for nixing any discussion of the $300 billion that rich nations pay their own farmers in subsidies, which the poorer countries deem unfair protectionism that prices their exports out of the market and stymies development. And a number of African leaders bristled at their own failure to stop the Europeans attaching a democracy-and-good-governance clause to calls for greater aid to the developing world.

By putting all the politically charged questions of poverty and pollution on the agenda of a two-week talk-shop, the Summit inevitably did more to highlight global schisms than to resolve them. There was the traditional "North-South" divide between rich nations and poor nations; the Kyoto signatories (Europeans and the developing world) against the Kyoto skeptics (the Americans and a handful of oil-dependent and -producing nations); and the U.S. vs. the Rest of the World (a schism exacerbated by the Bush administration's unapologetic unilateralism on environmental and other global affairs, underscored by the President's absence from the event, which was universally perceived as a snub). Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became a recurring, if improbable, theme at an event focused on crises far more profound than the battle over Mideast real estate, with supporters of the two sides clashing regularly in and around Summit forums — much to the irritation of the organizers.

Despite the discord, and the inevitable banality of the Summit's centerpiece document, plenty is still achieved in and around these gatherings. They remain a key forum for sharing experiences and practical solutions to some of the epic problems on which governments can't agree, formalizing an emerging global 'civil society' to engage with common problems and search for working solutions. It is in the networking and the sharing of ideas in hundreds of smaller seminars and presentations that the real impact of the Johannesburg summit will occur. And the growing power of that global, non-governmental constituency of environmentally concerned groups should not be underestimated. Their influence on global public opinion, and even consumer behavior, may be the single most important reason why more than 700 of the world's leading corporations (among them major oil companies and auto manufacturers) have gone to Johannesburg to tout their earth-friendly credentials. Indeed, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has worked hard to promote business-environmentalist partnership as a key component of a strategy to protect the environment. So, while the planet may be a long way from being saved, when the corporate titans so often accused of being among its worst abusers see the need to spend two weeks making common cause with the tree-huggers, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.