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global action > features > assessing the summit

Assessing the Summit

Posted: 22 Oct 2002

by Hilary French

Compared to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, last summer's World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg was bound to be somewhat disappointing. The negotiations leading up to Johannesburg had not provided any reason to expect dramatic break-throughs, and there were none.

But it would be a mistake to brand Johannesburg a failure merely because it lacked some of the excitement and energy of the Rio Summit. Negotiating new agreements, the main task at Rio, is a far easier job than actually putting them into practice in the farms, fields, and factories that form the backbone of the world economy. If Rio was a coming-out party for environmental issues on the global stage, Johannesburg was more like a mid-life birthday party, where the optimism of youth has been tempered by the realities of hard-won experience.

At a minimum, the World Summit was a valuable opportunity to assess progress, or the lack thereof, in the decade since the Earth Summit first put sustainable development onto the international map.

New realities

The news was not good. In the aftermath of the 1992 Rio Summit, diplomats and NGOs alike had high hopes for the several landmark agreements reached there, including international treaties on climate change and on the loss of biological diversity, and a voluminous action plan for sustainable development called Agenda 21. But in Johannesburg, delegates knew that global environmental trends for the most part deteriorated markedly in the subsequent decade. On the social front, some important indicators improved, such as school enrollment and illiteracy rates, but others threats worsened substantially, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And poverty rates remain stubbornly high, with 2.8 billion people-nearly half of humanity-living on less than $2 per day.

Although little forward movement was discernable on the sustainable development agenda in the decade following Rio, this does not mean that the world stood still. To the contrary, powerful forces of globalization were unleashed in the decade following the Earth Summit that posed major new challenges, as well as some new opportunities, for sustainable development.

Critics of globalization point out that many of the noble paper achievements of the Rio conference were subsequently undermined just a few years later by the agreement on a package of new trade accords at Marrakech in 1994 under the aegis of the newly created World Trade Organization (WTO). Many of the WTO's provisions contradicted the spirit, and in some cases arguably even the letter, of the Rio accords. And new dispute resolution procedures adopted as part of the Marrakech package gave the new WTO rules teeth by authorizing the imposition of trade sanctions to punish violators, in contrast to the far less binding nature of international environmental and social treaties.

The Johannesburg Summit offered the possibility of a change in course that would rebalance today's emerging structures of global governance away from a single-minded focus on freeing international commerce and towards a broader conception of progress that takes environmental and social sustainability into account. But did Johannesburg deliver?

Targets and time-tables

Unlike at the Rio Earth Summit, there were no major treaties up for negotiation in the run-up to Johannesburg. The most extensive document agreed to by governments in Johannesburg was a 54-page paper called the "World Summit on Sustainable Development Plan of Implementation." In addition, the 100 world leaders who gathered there adopted a short "Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development." (These documents and many others from the Summit can be downloaded from http://www.johannesburgsummit.org.)

Many governments pushed for the inclusion in the Plan of Implementation of new targets and timetables related to sustainable development that would complement and build upon the Millennium Development Goals adopted by nearly 200 heads of state in 2000. Among other targets, the Millennium Development Goals call for, by 2015, reducing by half the share of the world's people living in extreme poverty as well as those suffering from hunger and those lacking access to clean drinking water; cutting infant mortality rates by two-thirds; and ensuring that all children are enrolled in primary school. The Millennium Development Goals, while laudable in their own right, were weak on environmental protection and sustainable development, and many people hoped that the World Summit would fill in the gaps.

Some of the targets discussed during the negotiations were eventually either eliminated or weakened substantially. In one particular disappointment, a proposal by the European Union, Brazil, and other Latin American countries to adopt a numerical goal for the amount of energy to be obtained from renewable sources was strongly opposed by oil-exporting countries with a strong assist from the United States. In the end, the fossil fuel defenders won: the final compromise, although it endorsed increased reliance on renewables, did not set a specific target. Nonetheless, the fact that the debate got as far as it did was an indication that renewables are coming of age internationally, with a number of countries subsequently announcing plans to join together in a "coalition of the willing" that will meet in Bonn, Germany, next year to develop a concrete action plan for pushing renewable energy forward (see: Renewable Energy for the 21st Century).

Despite its shortcomings, the WSSD Plan of Implementation does include several new time-bound targets, including halving the proportion of people without access to sanitation by 2015, restoring fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015, establishing a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012, reducing biodiversity loss by 2010, and aiming by 2020 to use and produce chemicals in ways that do not harm human health and the environment. Although many of these targets are still rather vague, at least they provide benchmarks against which future trends can be measured.


One area in which Johannesburg differed markedly from Rio was the introduction of hundreds of "partnership initiatives," agreements between national governments, international institutions, the business community, labor groups, and non-governmental organizations to carry out sustainable development projects.

These partnership initiatives are a significant departure from the Rio approach, where the emphasis has been on accords among nation states. Illustrative examples include a partnership for cleaner fuels and vehicles announced at the Summit that will involve the UN, national governments, NGOs, and the private sector and a European Union "Water for Life" initiative that will harness diverse partners to help provide clean water and adequate sanitation in Africa and Central Asia. (Click here for an extensive list of partnership initiatives linked with the Summit).

But it is not yet clear how successful the numerous partnerships announced at the Summit will be in reversing today's deteriorating environmental and social trends. Not all of the announced initiatives were entirely new. Criteria for partnerships and procedures for monitoring and assessing them were discussed in the course of the Summit preparations, but watered down substantially in the end. And while some of these partnerships may accomplish worthwhile results, they are still no substitute for binding commitments from governments.

Strengthening the UN's sustainable development machinery

A key to ensuring that the various commitments made in Johannesburg actually happen will be continuing international oversight and monitoring. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation gives the UN Commission on Sustainable Development a major hand in this task, including a mandate to track implementation of the Summit's partnership initiatives. The Plan of Implementation also endorsed a decision earlier this year to strengthen the UN Environment Programme and to provide for more effective environmental co-ordination for the UN system at large. But there was no decision made in Johannesburg to create a World Environment Organization on a par with the WTO, as has been advocated by a growing number of scholars and NGOs in recent years, as well as by some governments.

The WSSD Plan of Implementation does call for more co-operation between the United Nations and the international financial institutions that are most closely identified with globalization-the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF. But it remains unclear exactly how this new collaboration will be brought about and what its practical implications might be. On the hotly contested question of clarifying the relationship between environmental treaties and global trade rules, the final agreement reasserts the importance of both bodies of international law, but fails to provide clear guidance for what to do in cases where they clash.

Broadening participation

One of the lasting legacies of the Rio Earth Summit was a heightened level of involvement of NGOs and representatives of other major groups (such as farmers, local officials, and labor representatives) in UN environment and sustainable development deliberations. The organisers of the World Summit aspired to build upon this tradition and take it to new levels.

Over 8,000 civil society participants were officially accredited to the Summit, a sizable increase from the nearly 1,500 who were signed up for the Rio Earth Summit. In addition to civil society participation in official summit meetings, there was a broad range of parallel events, such as meetings of parliamentarians, Supreme Court justices, local government officials, and trade unionists. There was also action in the streets: an estimated 20,000 people representing landless peoples and other social movements marched from one of Johannesburg's poorest areas to the glistening convention center on August 31st in protest of what they saw as the conference's lack of meaningful attention to their plight.

The business community was also out in force in Johannesburg. According to Business Action for Sustainable Development, the organisation that co-ordinated business input into the Summit, an estimated 1000 business representatives participated in the Summit, 120 of them CEOs, Board Chairman, or those of similar rank. In comparison, there were 100 world leaders in attendance. The extensive industry involvement in the Summit met with a with a decidedly mixed response, with some viewing it as positive sign of growing engagement by the business community in issues of sustainable development, while others saw it as a worrisome sign of growing corporate influence at the UN.

On the critical issue of citizens' rights, the World Summit made little official progress. The Rio Earth Summit set the standard with the path breaking Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which affirmed that individuals should have access to environmental information, the opportunity to participate in decision-making, and effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings. The WSSD Plan of Implementation speaks of furthering Principle 10, but then proceeds to give it only a qualified endorsement. And an earlier proposal for global guidelines to promote broader public participation was left on the cutting room floor.

Although many governments remain wary of citizen scrutiny of their decision making, civil society is beginning to take matters into its own hands. In one particularly promising initiative, the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute launched a "Partnership for Principle 10" initiative that encourages national governments, international institutions, and NGOs to make commitments of their own aimed at putting Principle 10 into widespread practice.

So was it all worth it? Only time will tell, as we see what concrete action flows from the commitments made in the World Summit's Plan of Implementation and through the multitude of associated partnership agreements and other initiatives. Although there can be no illusion that forging a sustainable development path will be easy, the task is becoming ever more urgent as the human costs of environmental degradation and social despair continue to mount.

This World Summit Policy Brief #12 was reproduced with kind permission from the Worldwatch Institute. For more information, email: or visit their website at: www.worldwatch.org

© People & the Planet 2000 - 2007
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