Issues concerning the earth's future took a backseat as unseemly politics ruled the day at the just concluded Earth Summit II SUPRIYA AKERKAR reports from New York

By Supriya Akerkar
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015


-- Mistrust, suspicion, North-South divide and a lack of commitment and political will on the part of the nation states to move towards a sustainable future were the key features of the second Earth Summit. Settling for the minimum possible... was the spirit of the negotiating nations. Further, entrenched economic national interests of nations such as the US overrode attempts by the world community to come to any consensus. Clinton even announced a billion dollar package over a five-year period for the Third World, obviously as a trade off against carbon emissions by the US. As a result, the review and appraisal of Agenda 21 - the global environmental action plan - by the 19th special session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) ended without the world leaders committing themselves to any firm measures to make the Earth a better place to live .

A: UNGASS: frame by frame
The Summit was throughout marred by ineffectual decisions and leaders made sure that they can fight over the same issues the next time they meet
only superficial concern, among the leaders, for the earth's environment was the dominant feature of the five-day (June 23-27) Summit. Constant jugglery of words, dilution of statements, settling for the minimum possible and lack of firm decisions on all the major issues confronting the earth's sustainability were the disappointing outcomes of this much awaited Earth Summit ii, in which more than 170 nation states and around 55 head of states, governments, crown princes and vice presidents participated.

The world leaders failed to agree upon concrete strategies to implement Agenda 21 - the blueprint devised during the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 to save the Earth - and failed to outline steps to combat climate change, desertification, poverty, and unsustainable consumption patterns. Much of the South's energy went towards negotiating for finance and technology transfer from the North, but without much success. Issues such as energy and transport could never rise above entrenched domestic economic interests of opec (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Certain consensus action was proposed on issues such as fresh water, oceans and seas, but they were not backed with any firm commitments on implementation. Further, indigenous people's rights was not even on the agenda of the ungass for discussion.

And as if to cover up the failure to reach any firm commitments on the way forward at the summit, the European Union ( eu) aggressively campaigned for the forest convention, to flaunt their green credentials to the crowds back at home ( See: High drama ).

Climate change
The resolution finally adopted on this most talked about issue will probably rank as one of the biggest disappointments of the summit. Notably, almost all world leaders, including eu and the us had in their speeches to the general assembly spoken about the negative impacts of the climate change, the disappearance of the small island nation states from the world map due to rising sea levels (a result of climate change), and greater incidence of diseases.

The five proposals tabled by the Commission on Sustainable Development ( csd ), which had met in April, for further negotiations at ungass became a point of stormy debate. While the European nations lobbied for a legally binding commitment for 15 per cent reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases ( ghgs) to below 1990 levels by the year 2010, the small island nation states who would feel the biggest impact of the climate change called upon the industrialised countries to agree for 20 per cent reduction of the ghgs emissions to below the 1990 levels by the year 2005. The proposals were opposed by the us whose business interests could get affected, and supported by oil producing countries, namely, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iran who feared a decrease in the export market.As consensus evaded the group, Japan supported by the us proposed using language from the Denver g-7 summit : "At cop-3 (third conference of parties to the convention to be held at Kyoto in December 1997), the industrialised countries should commit to meaningful, realistic and equitable targets that will result in reductions of ghgs emissions by 2010." Thus the us and Japan were keen to keep the reduction targets voluntary ( See box: Scapegoat: Third World ).

The us also attempted to link the reductions of ghgs emissions by the industrialised countries with that of developing countries by suggesting that developing nations also keep some binding targets for the reduction. Clinton in his address also proposed the concept of emissions trading, wherein developed nations would get the kudos for reduction of ghgs emissions in developing nations. The proposals created much heat amongst the southern countries and brought a sharp reaction from China who reminded the industrialised countries of their historical debt of accumulated emissions to the developing nations.

As the issue of when, how much and who should reduce the ghgs emissions remained unresolved, a compromise text was adopted as the session was coming to an end. The text said that "negotiations are still evolving and it would not be appropriate to seek to predetermine the results.... There is a widespread but not universal agreement that it will be necessary to consider legally binding targets... for annex i (deve-loped) countries..."

The us has thus succeeded in pushing the issue of legally binding targets for future negotiations. One of the negotiators remarked cynically that "the climate change issue is primarily economic and not ecological". And aware of the negative opinion it was generating in the world by its position, the us President Bill Clinton declared another platitude for the Southern governments in his speech to the general assembly: us $1 billion assistance to the developing countries to reduce ghg emissions. There is however a lurking suspicion that the aid is not an altruistic gesture but would be linked up with the concept of emissions trading.

Desertification and poverty
More than 100 governments have ratified the Desertification Convention which came into force on December 26, 1996. With the first session of the cop (Conference of Parties) scheduled in Rome in September 1997, several African nations were keen to see the issue getting the importance it deserves in ungass.

However, this hope faced a slow death as they realised that while the North was ready to mouth the importance of the convention in eradicating poverty, it was not willing to part with funds or technology to combat desertification and drought.

While the South demanded a Northern commitment for additional resources and transfer of technology, the North led by eu and the us argued that the maximum that they could support was a global mechanism that would promote mobilisation and channeling of resources - a mechanism which would have no explicit commitment from the North. As no consensus was reached, the chairperson of the ad hoc committee Mostafa Tolba kept both the views in the final text, by inserting the phrase, "Another view considers ..." after one view. African nations, therefore, got nothing but crocodile tears from the stingy North.

Consumption patterns
Negotiations by the South at the Summit led to the inclusion of the words "unsustainable patterns of production and consumption particularly in the industrialised countries as a major cause of continued deterioration of the global environment."

The final text argued for avoiding wasteful and inefficient patterns of development processes and argued for eco-efficiency as an important tool for making consumption and production patterns more sustainable. Says Manus Van Brakel of Friends of Earth, an ngo working in The Netherlands, "The solution of eco-efficiency is acceptable to the North since it is a politically neutral agenda. For example, private companies have always promoted efficiency with a profit motive. In fact, efficiency is seen as a way to increase the consumption." In other words, Manus was pointing out that efficiency need not lead to redistribution of resources, which would require a lot of institutional changes both in the North and the South. Manus added, "There is no discussion on this in the us, the highest consumer. Sharing of their resources with the rest of the world is just not on their agenda." The South thus did not succeed in making the re-organisation of production and consumption processes as a basic tool to combat the unsustainable consumption processes.

Finance and technology transfer
Adequate funding to implement Agenda 21 and technology transfer were two key demands of the South in all the negotiations. The industrialised countries in Rio, had committed in the first Earth Summit in 1992 to give 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Product ( gnp ) towards implementation of Agenda 21 is far from being met. At present, the contribution of the developed world is roughly around 0.27 percent of their gnp , that is much below the agreed target at Rio.

Much jugglery of words followed the finance debate. The North led by the us tried hard to replace the oda (Official Development Assistance) to implement Agenda 21 with private flows and the countries own domestic mobilisation of the funds. eu also tried hard to put country driven policy reforms as a conditionality to the financial aid. To all this g-77 had only one answer - developed countries should fulfill their commitment made at Rio to make available 0.7 per cent of gnp in the form of aid without any conditionality.

As both held on to their positions, a compromise text was reached with both views finding a place in different paras - as means of implementation of Agenda 21. The chair of the finance group called it a "balancing package". In other words both, North as well as South made sure that they could fight over the same old issues when they would meet the next time.

On technology transfer, the North kept its interests well protected. The us made it clear that the intellectual property rights must be protected and the South cannot expect the transfer of technology without due regard for them. In another attempt, g-77 tried to bring the issue of technology transfer outside the purview of market forces. It proposed that technology transfer to developing countries should not be confined to market forces alone, and that governments play an important role in providing r&d institutions "with incentives to promote institutional and human capacities for effective technology transfer". The us insisted that the above phrase be qualified by "subject to the need to protect intellectual property rights". As the us stuck to its guns, the final compromise text deleted the phrase "for effective technology transfer". In this way, the North upheld the principle of private knowledge and technology, while the South's agenda of technology transfer remained largely unfulfilled.

The section on energy, received a late but stormy reception from opec. Most of the paragraphs on energy were agreed or agreed ad referendum (almost agreed, with countries still having a chance to register any changes) as a result of informal consultations prior to ungass. The agreed text had covered a number of issues, including: increased need for energy services in developing countries; the need for equity and adequate energy supplies; international cooperation for promoting energy conservation and improvement; and promoting research efforts on renewable energy.

However, during the debate at ungass , the oil exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia proposed deletions of the portions dealing with cost internalisation of energy. But several countries including Canada, the us , Australia, Japan, Norway and eu resisted the call to re-open negotiations on agreed text. The us was particularly keen to maintain the status quo since it perceived this as a means to keep its green image which was fast disappearing due to its refusal to accept any legally binding emission reduction targets of ghg s.

A relentless Saudi Arabia, now supported by 22 other opec countries, was not willing to concede. The issue was finally taken up in the ad hoc Committee of the Whole - the group entrusted with the responsibility of finalising the document laid for approval to the General Assembly. The compromise proposal that followed suggested the use of an open ended intergovernmental group of experts meeting to be held in conjunction with the intersessionals for eighth and ninth sessions of csd . In return, the para on gradual promotion of the cost internalisation, minimising impact on developing countries and encouraging the reduction of subsidies was included

The us and eu, however, displayed double standards on the energy issue. While they strongly opposed any dilution of the text, as proposed by Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, they opposed the developing countries demand for technology transfer to promote energy efficiency. After a prolonged discussion, a diluted compromise text called for "evolving commitments for the transfer of relevant techno-logy, including time bound commitments, as appropriate, to developing countries and economies in transition."

Transport issues were broadly agreed upon following the fifth session of csd barring a eu -proposed initiative to prepare, at the international level, a tax on aviation fuel and the acceleration on phasing out the use of leaded gasoline. There was a broad agreement that the current patterns of transportation with their dominant patterns of energy use were not sustainable, and present trends may compound environmental problems.

However, as the negotiations reached the final stages, in the meeting of the Committee of the Whole, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Venezuela, Iran and Morocco, the oil exporting countries, called for the deletion of the entire paragraph on tax on aviation fuel, fearing an increase in the oil price and its impact on their markets. Countries such as Norway, Switzerland and eu opposed deleting the paragraph. The proposal also became more controversial because of a us senate resolution barring the us financial support for the un if it approves any form of taxation.

As a compromise the final text maintained the need to accelerate the phase out of leaded gasoline and the eu proposal of aviation tax was changed to "continuation of studies... on the use of economic instruments for the mitigation of the negative environmental impact of aviation..."

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