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The Earth Summit

Speech to the European Atlantic Group about the recently concluded conference - 1992-06-30

The recent Summit Conference at Rio has presented two strikingly different images. On one hand there was the whole panoply of an international conference at Head of State or Government level, with its back-up teams of advisers, political commentators, journalists and representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations, altogether amounting to many thousands of people. The context in which the delegates met was one of high sophistication and affluence. Concrete roads had been built specially for this occasion, one small illustration of the degree to which no expense had been spared to ensure efficiency and convenience of participants, and publicity coverage for the conference itself.

On the other hand there was the situation as it related to the vicinity of Rio: the situation that existed before the Summit, the situation as it will remain after the departure of the politicians and their fellow travelers. I refer to the destruction of the land of Brazil. Let us look at what happens when a single cubic metre of earth has been disrupted for whatever reason, be it the cutting down of trees or the planting of crops. Thousands upon thousands of microscopic creatures are thereby deprived of their habitat, some 500, 000 little organisms and 50, 000 fungi, to say nothing of the creatures whose existence can be seen with the naked eye, mice, spiders, scorpions and so forth. This multiplicity of inter-connected life is the foundation on which the existence of higher creatures, among whom we count ourselves, is built. Enough destruction of the base will eventually bring down, or at least distort, the edifice of life itself.

It may at times be difficult to see how the frenetic political activities of those who attend such conferences as Rio could possibly interact with the equally frenetic lives of these tiny organisms, these fungi, these mice and spiders. But in the first and last resort protection of the environment - the world which is our only home - means preservation of the building blocks of life; and it is no accident that one of the most important achievements of Rio was a Convention on Biodiversity.

The Rio Summit brought together, or crystallized, a change in people's feelings about the environment that had been gathering pace over many years. History is always invidious but I choose some landmark events. There was the first United Nations Conference on the Environment at Stockholm in 1972. The same year the Club of Rome published a highly influential book, which challenged conventional economics and was entitled The Limits to Growth. It was the start of a series of events, books and the like, which has gathered in volume ever since. There was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme, the 1st World Climate Conference; the work in the United States, which resulted in the document 'Global 2000'; the critically important Brundtland Commission Report on Environment and Development-declarations on the environment in the series of summit meetings held in 1989' the 2nd World Climate Conference addressed by Margaret Thatcher in one of her best - and last - speeches as Prime Minister; and finally the run-up to Rio itself, which began when I was the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Twenty five years ago most people would have found all this bizarre. Environmental concerns radically challenge entrenched orthodoxies and prevailing assumptions. But now most ordinary people are, I think, aware that something has gone wrong with the way in which we manage our affairs. The environmental dimension is established and has become permanent. The question is how to cope with it.

Before we look at what was accomplished at Rio, there are certain historical perspectives to be borne in mind. The industrial revolution which began only 250 years ago has changed the world beyond recognition. Those who benefited by it have seen their standards of living improve beyond recognition. Even most of those caught in the backwash feel better for it, and all have higher expectations as a result. But there is a price to be paid, and we are the first generation to be presented with the global bill.

There are several items on the account. The first, and perhaps most alarming, relates to population. Our numbers have multiplied at an incredible rate. Any species that does well, whether caterpillars, lemmings or humans, runs the risk of going beyond a sustainable threshold. At the end of the last ice age, when humans started to spread into the Americas, the population was roughly 10 million. In 1930, it was 2 billion. Unless a global catastrophe takes place, it will be 8.5 billion in 2025. Every year there are something like 93 million more human beings, substantially more than the number of people living in this country.

The second item is the deterioration of land, which is of course linked to the proliferation of the population. The World Resources Institute, among the most respected of environmental bodies, has just produced a report which shows that approximately 10% of the vegetation bearing surface of the earth is suffering from moderate to extreme degradation due to human activity since 1945. This is an area roughly equivalent to the size of India and China combined.

Next water resources. Sea water is 97% of the earth's water supply: we have long regarded it as a sink into which we can pour pollutants. As a result virtually no part, no matter how remote, of our oceans is free of contamination. The situation is worst along our coastlines and within the continental shelf: but such chemicals as PCBs or DDT can now be found in the tissue of Arctic creatures like penguins or seals which have never been anywhere near a human being. Meanwhile demand for fresh water continually increases. It doubled between 1940 and 1980, and will double again by the end of the century. As an illustration, all states bordering the Nile plan - indeed need - to take out more water, but the total volume has diminished in recent years, and there is no reason to believe it will be able to meet demand in the future.

There are three aspects to the problems of the atmosphere. Acidification due to industrial wastes is local in character, and can be cured if the will to do so is there. Ozone depletion is the indirect product of the manufacture and use of those useful molecules chlorofluorocarbons rising into the upper atmosphere The ozone layer is a shield protecting us from certain wavelengths of ultra violet light. Without it life itself would be put at risk. Even its depletion risks increasing the incidence of skin cancer and cataract in humans. It is profoundly encouraging that the perils have been generally recognized, and that there are now international agreements in place to eliminate the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons. But the effects will be with us for a long time to come.

It is much less easy to cope with the likelihood of global warming. The climate varies all the time, and thousands of years from now we shall probably be back in an ice age. In the meantime we are artificially increasing the quantity of gases in the atmosphere - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide etc. - which have the effect of trapping more of the earth's heat and increasing the temperature at the surface. The facts are not in doubt. The questions are of degree and extent. One of the achievements of Rio was a Climate Convention which at least - and at last - recognized the hazards.

I referred earlier to threats to the diversity of life. Death is one thing, but the end to birth is another! Churches have much to answer for in the sense that they have led us to regard ourselves as apart from the rest of the animal and vegetable worlds. In fact we are all part of the same tissue of life. Without bacteria we could not digest our food and without our food we could not live. No one can yet measure the complexities of interdependence or the impact of the destruction of other species. Again an achievement of Rio was the Convention on Biodiversity.

These problems cannot be dissociated, nor can we deal with them one at a time. Let us look at the general approaches so far adopted.

The most fundamental problem is unsustainable consumption of the Earth's resources, principally by and in industrial countries. In others the problem, exacerbated by population increase, is pressure on resources. We are a long way from measuring the consequences. They were seen very differently by the participants at Rio. On one side the industrial countries comforted themselves with the belief that environmental degradation was essentially a problem of the poor. They were ready to give some help. But few recognized the scale of the problem or their own direct involvement. None was ready to give an example of restraint. Here the United States was particularly at fault. With about 5% of the world's population, it produces a good 25% of the world's pollution. Of course it is not easy for a democratic government to adopt policies which could affect jobs, families and the economy as a whole. But if we in the West cannot set an example, we cannot expect much from those in a much worse position than ourselves.

On the other side poor countries have equally besetting illusions. As might be expected, they tended to view Rio as an ideal opportunity to extract more financial help from the rich. They neglected a critical point: that they were more vulnerable to change than anyone else, and would stand to lose most if the environment were damaged in an irretrievable way.

The product of these different approaches was the outcome of Rio. Many of the texts were poorly drafted: they were marked by faulty methodology, they contained ambiguities, which are going to vex us for a long time, and they failed by a wide margin to establish the means for action. Yet these documents are important and together constitute a success. How do I explain this paradox?

First what were the documents? The first set out the broad principles of environmental responsibility. We British are inclined to be dismissive of principles, but we are sometimes wrong. Principles can have real practical value. Two examples are the principles enshrined in the covenant on human rights of 1947, which transformed human attitudes the world over, even in those countries least inclined to respect human rights; and the principles in the Helsinki declaration following the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975. Nothing did more to loosen the oppressive bonds of the Soviet empire.

Secondly there are two legally binding Conventions. These are the Convention on Climate Change, and the Convention on Biodiversity. It is a matter of keen regret that President Bush, under pressure from certain vested interests, watered down the first and refused to sign the second. These Conventions open the way to establishing new international arrangements for managing these fundamental problems. They were far from perfect, but we can build on them.

Then there are the so-called Forestry Principles. These were a cruel disappointment. We had hoped for a lot more in the form of a legally binding Convention. But I suppose that principles are better than nothing.

Finally, and potentially most important, there was Agenda 21 as a text for managing the environment in the 21st century. It is an enormous ragbag. The contents have yet to be sorted arid graded. Some are rhetorical. Some could be of crucial importance. We shall see.

The British government played a more honorable role at Rio than is generally credited to it. It was the Prime Minister and successive Environment Secretaries who got the Americans as far as they went. The British delegates to the Summit played a positive role, not least in the improvement of texts, which were eventually accepted. The British have a talent for, facilitating negotiations, and this was very much in evidence.

The Prime Minister launched three British initiatives. One was the so-called Darwin Initiative on biodiversity. One was for a partnership in global technology to help transfer technology to non-industrial countries to enable them to do more to help themselves. And one was for a conference of Non-Governmental Organizations to be held next spring. There were, of course many proposals from others, some useful, some less so. A few found their way into the documents of the conference, and others were free standing. What President Bush actually said at the Conference was more positive than what his Delegations did.

The next stage is to distil, analyze, and tabulate. It will be the prime task of the next meeting of the UN General Assembly to push things forward.

Foundations have thus been laid. They will need rapid extension if the worst problems are to be tackled. But we should not despair. There are happy if limited precedents. Thus the Vienna Convention of 1985 laid down the framework for dealing with the ozone problem. It was followed two years later by the Montreal Protocol. Since then there has been a continuous tightening of the screws.

We have come a long way. The Rio Summit brought together twenty years worth of work based on growing public awareness of environmental issues. Governments, public opinion, academics, the media, business people, administrators, most now understand what the issues are, even if they do not relish the need to cope with them. The crystallization of opinion at Rio was a major achievement.

What next? Will industrial countries succeed in reducing their emissions of carbon which is the prime cause of the increase in greenhouse gases? Will the poorer countries try harder to manage their population problems? Here there are signs of hope in that world fertility is dropping fast. Will the peoples and governments of the world respect and give effect to what was signed at Rio? At least we now have a yardstick against which to measure progress, and a means of shaming the backsliders whosoever they may be (and they will be many in all camps).

I end with two little quotations. The first comes from a historian, John Reader, who well said:

".. . in the brief space of time that civilization has been a feature of human existence, it has not demonstrated any tendency to produce a well-regulated steady state whereby people are well fed and secure, generation after generation. Civilization is distinguished more by its erratic cycles. Time and again it has risen dramatically from the field of human endeavour, then collapsed and fallen. Human ingenuity drives the process. Human inability to impose adequate restraint brings it down. Inventions provide the initial response; intellect supplies methods of application and solutions to problems which arise as the system swells and grows, but in every instance so far, the uncontrolled growth of civilization has ultimately thrown up more problems than human intellect can solve."

The second quotation comes from a new work by the authors of 'Limits to Growth' first published in 1972. The new book is entitled Beyond the Limits. Building on their 1972 computer models analyzing where they were right and where they were wrong, the authors show that the world economy has a tendency to overshoot capacity because of expanding population and continuing economic growth. To sustain this growth, people draw down resources below certain thresholds at which their economies begin to behave differently. This is because of the steplike - nonlinear - character of change. In the end, the system cannot carry on. The authors write that their model, which they call World 3, has

"a strong tendency to overshoot and collapse. In the thousands of model runs we have tried over the years, overshoot and collapse has been by far the most frequent outcome. . . A population's food supply can be decreased with no impact on health for a long time, but if food per capita gets below a certain limit, death rates rise sharply. A nation can mine copper ore down to lower and lower grades, but below a certain grade mining costs rise greatly.... The presence of thresholds makes the consequence of feedback delays even more serious. . . . Any population-economy-environment system that has feedback delays and slow physical responses, that has thresholds and erosive mechanisms, is virtually unmanageable. In most World 3 computer runs - and this is the point - the world system does not run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability, it runs out of the ability to cope."

Let us make sure we do not do likewise.


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