World Summit on Sustainable Development Fails to Live Up to Expectations
World Summit on Sustainable Development Fails to Live Up to Expectations

Published on :12-16-2002

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26 to September 4, 2002, participants pledged to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015, established a solidarity fund to eradicate poverty, and restated the Millennium Development Goals laid out at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit.

These achievements were overshadowed, however, by the summit’s failure to issue an international declaration on sustainable development goals and its lack of progress on key issues such as climate change, biodiversity, corporate accountability, and fossil fuel use. As such, the summit was seen, at best, as “modestly successful,” in the words of the United Nations, or, at worst, as “a tragedy for poor people and the environment,” in the words of Oxfam, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that tries to alleviate world poverty.

This year’s summit marked the latest in a series of so-called “earth summits” dating back 30 years. At the 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, members of the United Nations (UN) first recognized the need for international action to preserve the environment, spurring creation of the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Later summits in 1992 and 1997 focused on promoting sustainable development, a term meaning economic progress that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as defined in a 1987 report by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development entitled, Our Common Future.

At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, participants from around the world agreed to an ambitious plan for achieving sustainable development in the twenty-first century called Agenda 21.

Five years later, a review of its progress took place in a special session of the UN General Assembly in New York in 1997. Much less successful than the Rio summit, this “Rio+5″ meeting ended with a call from General Assembly President Razali Ismail to NGOs to “go to the grassroots” and press their governments for implementation of the Rio accords.

The Johannesburg Summit, also known as Rio+10, was therefore meant to be a grassroots effort to secure action on the commitments in Agenda 21. Summit planners hoped to build on the momentum of a recent string of international conferences that pledged support for the environment and human development, such as the UN Millennium Summit in the fall of 2000, the WTO’s Ministerial Conference at Doha, Qatar in the fall of 2001, and the UN International Conference on Financing for Development, in the spring of 2002.

Expectations were therefore very high for the outcomes of this summit. More than 65,000 delegates from businesses, governments, and NGOs from 185 countries—including more than 100 heads of government—swarmed into Johannesburg for what became the largest international conference ever held.

In fact, three simultaneous summits were occuring—–the official UN World Summit (with 21,000 delegates), a Civil Society Global Forum for citizens and NGOs (also known as the Global People’s Forum), and a Business Action on Sustainable Development Forum for businesses in attendance.

The summit did have several notable results, such as the Plan of Implementation, which included a commitment to “halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water…and the proportion of people who do not have access to basic sanitation.” Drinking water and sanitation had not been addressed by past earth summits, despite being responsible for the deaths of two million children per year.

Another previously ignored topic receiving constructive attention was the role of partnership agreements among governments, business, and non-governmental organization (called “type 2” agreements, since binding agreements between governments are “type 1” agreements). As part of a larger announcement of over 220 Type 2 partnership agreements made at the summit, Paula Dobriansky, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, announced several new Type 2 partnerships initiatives that the United States was commencing for the purpose of fostering sustainable development.

The U.S. delegation also announced a $5 billion increase in its foreign aid every year for the next three years, part of a show of support for the solidarity fund to eradicate poverty.

Still, widely divergent interests among the numerous summit participants prevented agreement on crucial issues. In discussions on energy resources, for example, business leaders and members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) joined the United States in preventing an agreement on targets for renewable energy development, despite efforts by the EU and other countries, businesses, and NGOs. One NGO leader, Michael Marvin, of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, remarked, “We spent two weeks listening to the words about sustainable development and environmental protection, but in the end it was the status quo that ruled the day. An historic opportunity was lost in Johannesburg.”

Furthermore, certain important players were absent, most notably President George W. Bush. President Bush’s refusal to support the Kyoto Protocol, the most recent international environmental accord, had almost prevented its entering into force, but at the summit, China and Estonia announced ratification of the Protocol, and Russia and Canada said ratification would come by the end of the year.

Such divisions among the summit’s numerous participants often became heated. Even before the summit had begun, protest groups spoke out against the expected presence of business leaders at the Summit, and criticized the United States for its failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Once the summit sessions began, the United States was a popular target and, in one particularly caustic scene, Secretary of State Colin Powell was jeered and interrupted several times while delivering a closing statement on the final day of the conference.

Protests, in fact, were a common feature of the event. Outside the summit’s meeting halls, local pro-free trade merchants denounced the hypocrisy of developed nations that say they want to reduce poverty but maintain costly tariffs on goods imported from developing countries.

Other “anti-summit” protestors, among them many African farmers, pointed the finger at the summit’s environmentalists, saying their deterrence of genetically modified crop use constitutes a form of “sustainable poverty.” Summit participants as a whole were chastised by a 15,000-strong group of African poor who marched through the wealthy suburb where the summit was held to draw attention to the extravagance of the $60 million summit in the face of dire African poverty.

This poisoned atmosphere prevented solid achievements, leading to the UN’s unenthusiastic assessment of the event. NGO commentators were even less satisfied. Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth called the summit “the worst political sell-out in decades.” Oxfam expressed disappointment about the lack of progress made in areas such as reducing agricultural subsidies in developing countries, which prevent agricultural goods from developing countries from competing fairly.

Still others continued to think that the entire enterprise of sustainable development is misconceived. Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the free-market Cato Institute, released a report during the summit that stated, “As an all-encompassing governing philosophy, sustainable development is a dubious pipe dream,” and advocated instead the entrenchment of free markets, private property rights, and the rule of law, institutions that will enable lasting improvements in human welfare and the environment.

The lack of major accomplishment at the summit, the level of discord at the summit over the goals and methods of the movement for sustainable development, and continued disagreement in the aftermath of the summit means that much more work is required to fashion the balance between economic development and environmental protection that sustainable development hopes to achieve.

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