Albion Monitor /News

Rio Failure is Wake-up Call

by Farhan Haq

For the first time at a major U.N. conference, there were no significant new international commitments
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- By all admissions, the special session of the United Nations General assembly this week to follow up on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit ended as a remarkable failure.

For the first time at a major U.N. conference, which attracted more than 40 heads of states and dozens of Cabinet ministers, there were no significant new international commitments. The General Assembly failed to broker an agreement on climate control, a convention to protect forests, a tax on aviation fuel, or funding by the industrialized world for environmentally friendly development in the South.

In perhaps the most significant sign of the meeting's collapse, diplomats scrapped a five-page "political statement" that was supposed to display international unity to address environmental woes. Instead, after several late-night meetings, the delegates settled on a shorter "framework of commitment," which, in the words of one negotiator, contained "no phrase that is controversial or specific."

"It's an abdication of responsibility and a tremendously squandered opportunity," said Clifton Curtis, political advisor for Greenpeace International.

The conference "really reflects the breakdown of goodwill between the North and the South"
Gordon Shepherd, director of international policy for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), added that the talks "choked in even making promises...The Rio agreements were rightly hailed as a major success, but the promises made there have been betrayed in New York this week."

"This is a kind of wake-up call to the United Nations," said Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, president of the General Assembly. "This was the sort of conference that was due to happen...For the first time, we have recognized the limitations of our promises."

No new commitments were made, according to Razali, because for once, the countries of both the North and the South honestly faced up to the lack of real action they had made on environmental promises made in rio de Janeiro in 1992.

"The bane of international cooperation is that governments cannot maintain commitments -- not just on resources, but on doing things over the long haul," he said. As a result, most diplomats here -- and particularly those from developing nations -- shared "a sense of being aggrieved that many of the things that were promised at Rio didn't come."

The conference "really reflects the breakdown of goodwill between the North and the South," agreed Martin Khor of the Malaysia-based Third World Network. In that sense, the failure of this week's talks at least offered the opportunity for nations to ponder why their environmental efforts have run aground so that they can mend their cooperation on those issues.

That may not be easy. Nations from the South remained upset that instead of abiding by Rio targets which called for spending 0.7 percent of their gross national products on official development assistance (ODA) to the developing world, the industrialized countries have actually decreased ODA spending to a paltry 0.27 percent.

"What we have witnessed in the five years after Rio has been a nearly complete halt to international dialogue on environment and sustainable development," President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said this week.

By the same token, European leaders especially were frustrated that the two main achievements they sought at the conference -- a timetable to negotiate a forestry convention and a concrete goal to cut carbon emissions in the North by 15 percent from 1990 levels by 2010 -- ran aground.

U.S. President Bill Clinton refused to bind Washington to the 15-percent target despite massive pressure this week to sign on to the European Union (EU) plan and negotiators decided to leave the matter of specific reductions open until a climate control conference this November in Kyoto, Japan.

The forestry convention, meanwhile, was scuttled by an alliance between the United States, where timber and paper interests feared any new regulations, and Southern nations like Brazil and India, and environmentalists, all of whom feared that European and Canadian businesses would dominate any accord. Instead, nations here opted to follow up on more than 130 measures already suggested by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel and Forests and to consider further ways to enforce deforestation regulations.

The South had no incentive to agree with the North after five years of broken promises
Blame for the lack of results fell on all sides: the United States, for opposing everything from climate control targets to an aviation fuel tax proposed to garner funds for environmental programs in the South; the EU, for pushing a forestry convention before other sides understood what it would achieve; developing nations for refusing to consider more concrete steps until further ODA materialized.

But for many environmentalists, the outcome could be simply explained: the South had no incentive to agree with the North after five years of broken promises about cutting their own consumption levels and funding environmental activities in the developing world.

"It's the classic case of a failure to do what you promised to do rebounding back on you," Shepherd said.

U.N. officials, anxious to prove that the meeting wasn't a total loss, noted that world leaders agreed to phase out the use of lead in gasoline, and made some headway in recognizing problems in maintaining freshwater sources in advance of talks on that topic next year.

More importantly, whether issues were resolved or not, many nations -- including the Group of Seven and most other European heads of government -- put progress on the environment, or lack of it, into the spotlight. "What this meeting does is that it creates a sense of expectation in the negotiating process," said U.N. Under-Secretary General Nitin Desai.

In this case, Razali concluded, the desire for further progress could be sharpened by the sense of disappointment generated at this meeting. To that extent, he argues, "I'm happy that we didn't go for the gloss -- we went for the real thing."

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Albion Monitor June 29, 1997 (

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