Achievements, surprises, and some telling unscripted moments

Monday 09 December 2013 03:44

The results of the Earth Summit, which has closed in Johannesburg, are less impressive than we might have hoped, but more substantial than we had feared. And while the future of the world may not have been secured, the cause of banishing poverty while safeguarding the environment has not been abandoned either.

On the credit side, all 160 national delegations that were expected turned up. Agreement, however theoretical and pallid, was reached on all items on the agenda, from clean water to Aids. A small number of last-minute disagreements were overcome.

It is easy to dismiss such basics as the very least that could have been expected from so minutely stage-managed a gathering. And many of the doubts that attended the whole concept of the Earth Summit did indeed persist until its end.

With 60,000 delegates, it was far too big. There was an abiding friction between the summit's two priorities, development and its sustainability, that was never satisfactorily resolved. Rather, it was underlined by the venue: in a glistening, formerly all-white suburb adjacent to one of South Africa's most impoverished townships.

The failure to agree targets for increasing the generation of renewable energy, as forcefully advocated by the Europeans, was a lamentable omission and one that cast doubt on the political will of the summit's participants to make even small sacrifices for the sake of the welfare of all.

Finally, there was the late and mostly grudging participation of the United States – the richest, most profligate and most polluting country on the planet. President Bush's absence signalled the lack of high-level US commitment to the summit's ideals.

Yet there were achievements, surprises and some telling unscripted moments. Together, they showed what a change there has been since the Rio summit 10 years ago, at least in identifying the nature and scale of the issues, if not in agreeing the solutions.

First, the summit pushed the feasibility of sustainable development into the international media spotlight and kept it there for more than the standard soundbite. Second, that so many representatives of business travelled to South Africa for the summit showed how far environmental and development causes have now penetrated the mainstream. There was an ambiguity about their presence, of course, reflected in the inclusion of senior business executives in Tony Blair's delegation. But it is now accepted, by non-governmental organisations and other campaigners, as well as by governments, that commercial investment can be part of the solution as well as part of the problem, and this is all to the good.

The summit also provided the impetus for the unexpected announcement by Russia that it was preparing to ratify the Kyoto agreement to combat global warming. It cannot be ruled out that this was less about cutting carbon emissions in Russia than astute politicking by President Putin to expose the emptiness of US environment policy. But Russia's accession to the treaty would mean that enough big producers of greenhouse gases had ratified the treaty to bring it into effect.

Finally, there was yesterday's speech of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and its reception. Mr Powell, the most emollient cabinet member President Bush could have nominated to speak, was heckled and booed both by his own country's environmental campaigners and by many official delegates in the hall. It was a graphic illustration of how isolated Mr Bush's America has become in a world that the Earth Summit showed to be increasingly interconnected.

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