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Johannesburg and its Aftermath

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003-02-05

The doyen of British environmental journalists recently told me that after the Johannesburg Summit sustainable development would be dead as a story. He was right. He himself described it as, "disaster averted: opportunity lost". No wonder it has dropped out of the news.

What was it all about? Sustainable development is an elusive and elastic concept and I wonder how many of the participants at Johannesburg had a clear idea of what "sustainable development" really means? Some might have taken refuge in the Brundtland definition:

"Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

But that begs as many questions as it answers. I prefer to go for a sound bite from Rob Gray:

"Treating the world as if we intended to stay".

This means looking to the future as well as the present and the welfare of the planetary environment as a whole. This is threatened as never before by our giddy making increase in numbers, deterioration of land quality and accumulation of wastes, pollution of salt and fresh water, the changes we are making to the chemistry of the atmosphere, and the destruction of other living species. These are the problems that Johannesburg had to cope with if it was to be deemed a success.

Did it succeed? The press was unkind to the Summit and this has coloured public opinion. The Summit has attracted such comment as:

This view of the Summit has something in it but is not entirely fair: Despite the expense, such meetings are the only global forums where sustainability can be discussed across the whole range of disciplines by participants from governments, business and industry, and non-governmental organizations of all kinds; and they compel governments and their leaders to think about the big issues; draw up briefs; and even invent policies to deal with them, especially when world leaders are distracted by such other issues as terrorism.

In this case the UN Secretary General had a practical five point agenda:

  1. water & sanitation
  2. energy
  3. health
  4. agriculture
  5. conservation of biodiversity

and all these issues were at least discussed. The result was four fold:

  1. a political Declaration which said very little new: indeed a triumph of repackaging.
  2. a fifty-four page Plan of Implementation. Only time will tell its value. But it has already been described as, "Many trees, but little wood".
  3. an assembly of so-called partnerships
  4. a variety of targets but none that was legally binding.

Some progress seems to have been made in certain areas. Here are some of them:

Throughout the Summit participants had to cope with the strange attitude of the United States:

By contrast the European Union did relatively well, and its members pulled together effectively. Without the European Union there might have been no agreements at all. Commentators believe that it could have achieved more, but its position was undermined by its continued reliance on subsidies for agricultural production and exports.

In general the participants generally left wiser, sadder but better aware of their many shortcomings.

Governments were not the only people meeting in Johannesburg though others received little media attention. The difficulty is that as thinking on sustainability spreads into more and more sectors, so it becomes more complex and difficult to keep track of what is going on.

The work of non-governmental organizations of all kinds, judges, business and industry, local and regional authorities may have been less tangible but in the long run it may prove to have been more significant. There was even a joint appeal from Greenpeace and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) for an international framework to combat climate change.

The same goes for the role of science at Johannesburg. There was a science forum at which the issue of the application of science and technology were discussed, sometimes between unlikely partners, in a way that might otherwise have been impossible. We have yet to see how some of these partnerships will work but some should do well, and be models for others.

Nonetheless Johannesburg was in most respects a monumental failure. It did not recognize the character of the threats facing the Earth as a whole, nor suggest ways of coping with them. We are in a unique situation, well brought out in a recent book on the 20th century entitled Something New Under the Sun, and made specific in the Declaration made by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that:

No wonder that Crutzen and Stoermer have labelled the present epoch since the beginning of the industrial revolution as the Anthropocene. Yet science was virtually ignored in the governmental part of the conference. It has however been taken up vigorously by ICSU (the International Council for Science), which plans to establish centres world wide to promote the best science for sustainable development.

The growing division of humanity between rich and poor was the subject of much rhetoric but virtually no action. By contrast little was said about the continuing pressure of human population increase. Advocates of market forces suggest that these will eventually bring their version of development to all. The trends suggest the opposite. In assessing progress on the Millennium Development Goals stated in July last year, the UN Secretary General well said:

"There is no autopilot, there is no magic of the market place, no rising tide of the global economy that will lift all boats, guaranteeing that all goals will be reached by 2015."

Over the 1990s progress has been made in East Asia, but for the rest of the poorer countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, most indicators, especially key ones such as child mortality, remain stubbornly high. According to the UN, malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa has increased.

At present about 20% of the world's people consume between 70% and 80% of its resources. That 20% enjoy about 45% of its meat and fish, and use 68% of electricity (most generated from fossil fuels), 84% of paper, and 87% of cars. The dividing line between rich and poor is not only between countries but also within them. Even in India and China, the rift is between globalized rich and the localized poor. There has been debate whether globalization has exacerbated this divide. The UNDP Human Development Reports, especially that of 1999, suggest that it has.

Before the Johannesburg Summit took place, there was a series of Round Tables of so-called Eminent Persons from the six major regions of the world. I chaired the first of them for Europe and North America. Our main conclusions were:

Overall I am afraid that very little happened as a result of our labours and those of the other Round Tables.

Where should we go next with sustainability? What should our priorities be? Most of us have our own, but let me suggest mine.

Top of my list is to rethink a lot of economics. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the statement by a well-known economist that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". In short without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy. But there is a real difficulty on how to assess health. The ideologues of free trade like to suggest the price mechanism. But as another distinguished American once remarked: "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognizing costs".

Prices are indicators. But we have to make sure that they tell the truth about costs. A pricing system should include not only the traditional costs, but also those involved in replacing the resource, and those of the damage that use of the resource may do. In short current market economics will not do. We need new systems of measurement and new definitions of wealth as well as of that phrase beloved of politicians "economic growth". We should heed the words of Oystein Dahle, former Vice President of Esso for Norway and the North Sea who once said: " Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."

If we are to reappraise economics, we need to look closely at current global financial institutions. The World Bank has made some steps to introduce environmental accounting, and the Johannesburg Summit ensured that environmental conventions had some parity with World Trade Organization rules.

With the gaps between rich and poor ever increasing, most environmental trends are going in the wrong direction. Let us also be clearer about what is going on. The UN Secretary-General has asked the UN Development Programme to monitor the Johannesburg and Monterrey targets and the Millennium Development Goals. In addition he has asked the UNDP to produce league tables of how countries are - or are not - achieving sustainable development.

Regional initiatives are another priority. Although global environmental problems need global responses, the current need for consensus can be stymied by the self-interest of powerful states. Such initiatives as the European Union's Renewable Energy Strategy aims to achieve a minimum of 12% renewable energy sources by 2010. This could help promote innovation and provide examples of best practice for the rest of the world.

It is also important that where there are clear regional problems, there should be regional responses. In this way states can agree to collective targets to prevent the lowest common denominator becoming the only basis for agreement. The difficulty is in achieving a balance between the need for common actions while still accommodating pressing local needs.

All this can take time. Europe is not a paragon of virtue. Only now is it beginning to tackle its perverse subsidies on agriculture. They have the effect of distorting trade in primary resources, and can make efforts to increase development aid seem trifling. Europe also needs to look at subsidies to fossil fuels, many times those given to renewable energies, thereby favouring outmoded, carbon-reliant technologies.

What of the British Government? The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its latest sustainable development strategy in June this year. Entitled Foundations for our Future, it identified seven cross-cutting themes:

  1. climate change
  2. the use of natural resources and waste
  3. preserving the marine environment
  4. maintaining the food chain
  5. animal health and welfare
  6. public health and well-being
  7. rural economies, communities and countryside character.

To assess success it also established 22 indicators of progress.

Sustainability cannot be driven by government action alone. In some respects business is ahead. As was shown by the presence of so many businesses at the Johannesburg Summit, recent years have seen a trend towards greater corporate responsibility, realized through self-regulation, corporate environmental policies, voluntary codes of practice, and the use of environmental audits and open reporting. For example:

But the majority of businesses, especially the smaller ones, are not so transparent. Consumers have to have a better idea of where their products come and the damage their use could do. With business as with government, it is often a question of waiting to see who will jump first. Regulation can prompt action by ensuring that there is uniform operating conditions for all.

The British Prime Minister is thinking along similar lines. During the Johannesburg Summit he took the opportunity to commend the London Principles, which represent a voluntary code for financial institutions to demonstrate their commitment to the financing of sustainable development. He drew attention to the need for companies to build environmental and social considerations into their core business. Key to these principles is the need to improve information going to legislators, investors and civil society to help improve environmental accountability.

In Britain there are more members of environmental and conservation groups than there are members of political parties. Yet for the time being, sustainability is dead as a media story, and there is a tendency to think that if topics are not in the news then nothing is happening. To some extent there is an overload of information. As our understanding of the complexity of sustainability grows, it has become increasing difficult to manage the mountains of data required to monitor progress. But we still need to do our best.

Either way there is need to reinvigorate local action and especially Agenda 21. Every individual must feel that he and she can do something and take increased responsibility for their actions. Sometimes this means change in the way we live. Many people, have complained about the alleged costs of sustainability. But have they calculated the costs of unsustainability, which by any reckoning is much the larger problem?

Here some history is of use. Since the last ice age ended some 11,000 years ago, there have been around 30 urban societies. Some lasted longer than others. But nearly all crashed sooner or later, and the underlying cause was a mismatch between human demand and natural supply, in short unsustainability.

You may wonder how changes in direction ever take place. The power of inertia is immensely strong, especially in the functioning engine-room of society - the middle ranks - whether in government, business or elsewhere. It is all too easy to get lost in the sheer mechanics of making things work. Such changes usually occur at a low and stately pace as new generations come of age. But this time the combination of the environmental and political agendas has urgency.

Change usually takes place for three main reasons. First we need leadership from above by institutions or individuals. The dangers of leadership in the wrong direction driven by ignorance or vested interest are much before us today.

Secondly we need public pressure from below. The voice of civil society must be heard and listened to. For example, in Europe many thought that Greenpeace's opposition to the dumping of the oil-platform Brent Spar was exaggerated. But the results were positive. They created greater public awareness of our common global inheritance, and the need to protect it. They demonstrated consumer power, especially in Germany. They induced a greater sense of corporate responsibility in disposing of waste and greater awareness of the need to build disposal into the original design of products. In short, the voice of civil society must be heard and listened to throughout the decision making process.

Lastly we often need some useful catastrophes to jerk us out of our normal inertia; big but not too big; small enough but not too small; quick but not too quick; slow but not too slow. In each case big enough to demonstrate the point. Such catastrophes could include drought or flood, sea level rise, refugees on the march, some new genetically modified organism getting out of control, and most likely creeping social and economic breakdown.

There seem to me to be two fundamental questions. First do we know where we are going? My answer is not yet. The juggernaut of the conventional wisdom rolls on. Secondly can we cope with the problems raised by the unstable and unsustainable society we have created for ourselves? My answer is also not yet.

Johannesburg did not find the answers, but answers must be found. I remember that before the Rio Summit of 1992 George Bush senior tried to reassure the American people by saying that no-one was going to change the American way of life. Apparently George Bush junior thinks the same. They are both dead wrong. North Americans must change their way of life, as we in Europe must change ours. Otherwise Nature will do what she has done to over 99% of species that have ever lived, and do the job for us.

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