'The practical implications of the Earth Summit'
by Joseph C. WHEELER
Each of us engaged in development and environment activities is looking ahead to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development to be convened June 1-12 in Rio de Janeiro. It is often called the 'Earth Summit' because the United Nations General Assembly has asked that delegations be led by heads of state or government. It promises to be the most important of the series of United Nations sponsored conferences on global issues held since the United Nations', inception 47 years ago. But what can such a gathering of nations accomplish in practical terms?
There is a prior question which I will address first: what needs to be accomplished ?
As we come to the end of this century and millennium we quite naturally find ourselves taking stock. Today's older generation-of which I am a part- thinks back over the past four decades and considers with what degree of success and failure the challenges of the period have been met. We now see this period as one of enormous and rapid change. Without citing all the statistics one can sum up what has happened in terms of a more than doubling in world population coupled with an increase in life expectancy in industrial countries of ten years and in developing countries of twenty years. We all know what this means in terms of agricultural and industrial production, expansion of education, building of infrastructure, urbanisation, and changes in governance.
Looking to the future we can at least glimpse the challenge for the next half century in terms of completing the demographic transition (with another near doubling of population), tripling agricultural production, eliminating poverty, and creating jobs. With all the success of the past decades, a billion people still live in dire poverty and we must raise the priority for programmes which will reach the poor. But we also know that the development process itself has revealed limiting factors which will require much more careful management in many areas. Development is doing damage to the natural resource base on which human life depends.
In this context, the first outcome of the UNCED process needs to be increased awareness of the relationships between development and environmental processes-an appreciation of the need to adjust goals and methods to a new understanding of limits. In a manner of speaking, UNCED has already achieved a major success since we know of the myriad ways in which the prospect of the Earth Summit has been used as a vehicle for reconsidering development strategies
With the emergence of the global issues - ozone layer, climate change, biodiversity and ocean management-the development debate has moved from a concentration on how developing countries can catch up with industrial countries to a reconsideration of the basic goals of development as they apply to both groups of nations. Industrial countries now know that their own production and consumption goals must be revised to be sustainable and that a process of redevelopment must now be pursued. An awareness of environmental limits is also forcing a rearticulation of development strategies in developing countries. UNCED negotiations have forced , government ministries to talk to each other about development and environment issues, seeking new balances in policy and actions.
But of course, UNCED is not simply a vehicle for education. It is a negotiation on a wide range of issues. The products of the UNCED process will be an Earth Charter or Rio Declaration articulating basic values and principles, an Agenda 21 constituting an action programme for the twenty-first century, National Reports of member governments, an agreement on institutional arrangements for follow-up, understandings on technology transfer and financing and, finally, conventions to be signed on climate change and biodiversity. The conventions follow separate negotiating processes; the Summit provides a political deadline for their completion.
The UNCED negotiations on Agenda 21 range widely, involving many subjects. The draft Agenda 21 contains 39 chapters covering inter alia, poverty, consumption patterns, demographic dynamics, health, human settlements, atmosphere, fragile ecosystems (mountains, forests, dry lands), agriculture, biodiversity, biotechnology, oceans, freshwater, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, sanitation, solid wastes, radioactive wastes, technology, science, education and capacity building. UNCED will not have either the first or last word on any of these. Yet in each area it can be hoped that earlier
I resolve can be strengthened or extended or new initiatives can be decided upon. In evaluating UNCED it will be fair to ask, for each programme area, did the Conference accelerate action at all levels in society?
As just one practical example, I will cite the subject of toxic chemicals. It is widely recognised that more needs to be done to assure safer use of toxic chemicals and that this will require better information about chemicals in international trade, adoption of prior informed consent procedures and the building of developing country capacities in chemical management.
Work on toxic chemicals has been undertaken in the United Nations by a number of agencies. In order to develop international strategies to control toxic chemicals, the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) was launched in 1980. This is a cooperative programme set up by WHO, UNEP and ILO specifically to provide assessments of the risks of chemicals to human health and the environment and to provide guidance on their use. WHO is the executing agency for the programme. Within UNEP the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC) has played the lead role on this subject. The work of OECD and the EEC on chemicals is well known and is coordinated with IPCS, as is that of the FAO. But new chemicals are being produced at a rapid rate and most chemicals have not been thoroughly studied and characterised in terms of risks and management recommendations. The characterisation of chemical properties is expensive, so priorities need to be set and risk assessment accelerated.
Duplication needs to be avoided. Definitions and vocabulary must be agreed. Information needs to be disseminated. Country and industry capacity for managing chemicals needs to be improved. UNCED is providing the vehicle for discussing ways to strengthen international collaboration as it relates to toxic chemicals including the establishment of an intergovernmental mechanism for risk assessment and management.21 programmes and the nations of the world, through UNCED, can accomplish a gr
I expect the pace of work in the United Nations and in member governments to be substantially quickened with the adoption of the five action programmes contained in the chapter on 'Environmentally Sound Management of Toxic Chemicals'. This is only one area in Agenda 21 but it now seems likely that it will represent a significant UNCED success story. Add up a number of these kinds of Agenda 21 programmes and the nations of the world, through UNCED, can accomplish a great deal in practical terms.
In reciting this one example, I do not want to take away from the dramatic possibilities for success on more topical issues such as climate and biodiversity. It is fundamentally important that the current negotiations on these two subjects result in strong initial conventions by the time of the Rio meeting. Even if they represent only the first steps of a process, they will lead to faster growth in knowledge about the climate process and about what is happening to species, as well as to a higher priority to action programmes in these areas.
One of the most important possible outcomes of the UNCED process will be the new understanding that environment and development are not separate competing issues. Environment and development must be seen as a single subject. Development is a failure if it is not sustainable. Environmental protection cannot be achieved by people living in poverty. Thus UNCED has the ambition to accelerate the development process even as it is focuses attention on important environmental issues.
The UNCED process is likely to agree on a number of needed changes in course and emphasis. For one thing, with the National Reports prepared for the UNCED process, countries have had to focus on the adequacies of their integration of environmental issues into the overall planning processes. This, in turn, has highlighted the need for reaching all people in society with education, on the desirability of more participatory approaches in decision making, on the important role of women, on the need to apply polluter pays principles and to avoid subsidies which encourage waste.
While UNCED will surely be able to show success in the expansion of knowledge about the inter-relationships between development and environmental issues, there remains the question as to whether or not this will be translated into decisive changes in course. UNCED will not be the place where the international trade regime will be decided. Nor will it be the place for solution of the debt overhang issue. Yet it could influence thinking on these issues.
Beyond that, it could signal a willingness by the industrial countries to face up to adjustments needed in their own consumption patterns and to review financing priorities, opening the way for higher levels of catalytic funding in support of developing country strategies.
A final test of success at Rio will be the follow-up. Of course the adoption of a revised statement of values and intent in the form of an Earth Charter or Rio Declaration would be a positive step. It will be important to sign the two conventions on climate and biodiversity. Principles on forestry can be helpful. The many programmes embodied in Agenda 21 will be critical. But we know from experience that unless member governments establish follow-up processes at both national and global levels and unless tough decisions are made about financing priorities, much of the UNCED Agenda will not be implemented.
In summary, using UNCED as a vehicle, the members of the United Nations will define strategies for the decades ahead and adopt a wide range of practical programmes for implementing those strategies. Only a bold outcome will bring about the changes in course needed both to abolish poverty and to achieve sustainability.
The motto for this Earth Summit is 'In Our Hands'. Whose hands? We are each participants whether we go to Rio or not. While the success or failure of the meeting in Rio is in the hands of governments, the real measure of success will come after Rio and will depend on how people, communities, organisations, industries and all other actors in our societies take to heart the messages of the UNCED process and put them into practice.
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