The seeds of disagreement were sown even before the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the historical conclave where 172 countries and 108 heads of state squabbled over global warming and biodiversity protection. End result was the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and an action plan called Agenda 21. Down To Earth was the first to capture this debate in the inaugural year's June 15 issue. Edited excerpts
The biggest problem with the Rio conference has been its petty-mindedness. It has consistently refused to look into the basic processes that lead to environmental destruction. The world’s political leaders have shown great fear of the economic and political restructuring that such an approach would demand. The result is a petty focus, promoted by the industrialised countries, on a few specific environmental problems, and a counter to that by the developing world stressing national sovereign rights over natural resources and compensation for the additional costs that would be incurred in dealing with these problems.
The consumption levels— of most of us in the North and a few of us in the South—have reached a level that the earth’s capacity to bear has been more or less exhausted. The problem arises when one person benefits from environmental exploitation and another has to suffer.
Then law must intervene to allow the sufferer to bring the environmental exploiter to book. But no such law exists, especially where environmental exploiters are whole societies. The US citizens can push in substantial amounts of CO2 into the air and threaten large parts of Bangladesh with submergence. But Bangladeshis have no lever of power to control unbridled US consumption.
Beyond a point the sovereignty argument cannot work in a world which has reached such life-threatening levels and forms of consumption cutting across national borders. All countries will have to accept a basic minimum global discipline. Pressures will continue to grow after the Rio conference. The issue is, therefore, simply one of creating a system of checks and balances that are fair to all parties concerned.
The northern efforts to use aid, trade and debt as levers of power for environmental discipline must be rejected. They give power only to one side: the North. But the South will have to propose, today or tomorrow, and fight for a system that gives power to all sides. World market system does not ensure that the rich pay the full ecological cost of their consumption. In fact, ecological costs are usually externalised and have to be borne by those who have created the least problems: the poor.
We have a global warming problem because no costs are attached to the use of the atmosphere. We have a biodiversity problem because, despite its economic value, we do not pay to use it. If we had paid these the economic system would have moved towards appropriate conservation and environmentally sound technological systems.
The free market must be harnessed to become a fair market. The question is whether global consumers of natural resources and technologies are also prepared to accept the political and economic responsibilities that follow globalisation? The North insists on the opening up of Third World markets and devaluation of Third World resources, but is not prepared to accept this corresponding responsibility. To solve environmental problems we must accept the global economic and political rights of others. As things stand, the realisation that ‘Only One Earth’ also means ‘Only One People’ is still a big dream.
Squabbles continue after 20 years of Rio. The world is yet to see tough action to protect its environment and arrest global warming. Fissures between the developed and the developing world have only grown. Rich nations are yet let go of their extravagant lifestyle. They want to pass on to the poor nations their historical responsibility of greenhouse gas emissions.
Read full article: June 15, 1992