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Earth Summits – a record of failure

The record of Earth summits prior to Johannesburg can be summed up in four words: high hopes, poor results. The first such summit took place in Stockholm in 1972, following the first Earth Day centred in New York in 1970. The 1970s became known by optimistic environmental reformers as the Decade of the Environment. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set up to co-ordinate and manage federal pollution control programmes. Much legislation was passed setting out standards for the reduction of air and water pollution, but the industrial polluters did not disappear.

When President Carter introduced tougher dumping regulations there was a big increase in illegal midnight dumpings, and exporting toxic waste to the Third World became a sudden growth industry. The Earth Day celebrated the modest and mostly temporary environmental gains that had been made. The following year the incoming Reagan administration packed the EPA with environmental lobbyists and lawyers whose chief function was to dismantle environmental legislation or to make it ineffective.

In 1987 delegates from twenty-three industrialised countries met in Montreal and agreed to phase out the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by 1999. The US was keenest because it had a virtual monopoly on the production of substitutes. The other countries wanted time to catch up on the technology. But many of them refused to sign, on the grounds that they couldn’t afford the substitutes (estimated to be at least three times as expensive).

It was the same story with carbon dioxide emissions. Those countries with above average dependence on coal and oil-fired power stations, led by the US, dragged their feet. Paying for filters or building other types of power stations would have raised their costs and put them at a disadvantage in competing with other countries on world markets. So any treaty on global warming that might have emerged would have been an inadequate compromise between rival capitalist states, full of loopholes and get-out clauses to protect vested interests.

The second Earth summit was held in Rio in 1992. Here a blueprint was drawn up for reversing the growing environmental damage to the planet and for narrowing the gap between richer and poorer nations and people in the twenty-first century. The leaders solemnly pledged themselves to implement Agenda 21, a document that had much to say about how environmental protection and economic development had to go hand in hand, but, as Fred Pearce recently remarked in the Independent (31 August), said next to nothing about combating the real impediments of money and politics.

The optimism generated by the Rio Summit soon faded as the problems, far from being solved, went on growing. Global warming continued to increase (eight of the hottest ten years recorded have been since 1992), topsoil continued to be lost (nearly a third of the world’s land area is degraded and at risk of becoming desert), forests continued to be felled and species to become extinct.

Richer countries failed to fulfil their promise to provide aid to help poorer ones change course and develop in a more sustainable manner. Wealth owners in the richer countries have enjoyed a bonanza since Rio, with the world economy growing by more than a third to $42 trillion (£27,600 billion). But aid to poorer countries did not just fail to rise – it fell like a stone. Between the Rio Summit and the millennium, aid dropped by more than a quarter in real terms. Every developed country except Denmark cut it. Instead it was Third World debt that rose – by a third to $2.5 trillion (£1,600 billion).

Five years ago there was another Earth summit, this time in New York. It was only ever going to be a re-enactment of the Rio Summit. The delegates from the world’s leading nations failed to agree on new targets for carbon dioxide emissions. The Rio delegates had agreed to return to pre-1990 CO2 levels by the end of the decade. But between 1992 and 1997 such emissions had in fact spiralled and went on doing so. The industrialised countries were as usual the worst perpetrators.

The Rio guidelines to protect the world’s forests were not adhered to, with about 10m hectares of forest vanishing every year, accompanied by the loss of about 130,000 species of life. At Rio the industrialised countries had agreed to increase their proportion of overseas aid to 0.7 percent of GDP. What happened was that aid fell by 20 percent between 1992 and 1995. In that period global poverty had increased, with the poorest 20 percent of the world’s people sharing less than 1.1 percent of global income, compared with 2.3 percent in 1960.

The Rio Summit had pledged $125 billion a year in aid initiatives for projects aimed at helping the environment. Few have been carried out and some have resulted in human misery. In Uganda, for instance, 35,000 inhabitants of the Kabale forest region were forcibly ejected from their homes in order that tourism could be encouraged and the forests protected. Those who resisted were either shot or burned alive in their homes.

In the five years between the Rio and New York summits the world’s fishing grounds were further depleted. The whole ecosystem faced, and still faces, an increased threat from oil and gas companies who are now exploiting the deeper oceans in their endless pursuit of profit. The day after the New York Summit closed the Guardian reported that it had ended in a shambles with no clear agreement on its main goals of new aid for developing countries or protecting forests.

Then later in 1997 came the Climatic Change Conference in Kyoto, Japan. A protocol was adopted which set specific targets for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. The targets varied from country to country. In March 2001, to the dismay of the international community, the US administration announced that it would not implement the protocol on the grounds that it is not the right tool to deal with the challenge of climate change at a global level.

As an alternative the Bush administration proposed a cap and trade system that would set limits for emissions of three major air pollutants – but not carbon dioxide. Whereas Kyoto set out mandatory reductions, under the Bush plan permits would be assigned for each ton of pollution. By cutting emissions, firms would be able to trade these permits with other businesses. The European Union estimated that the Bush plan would allow the US to actually increase emissions by up to 33 percent.

World condemnation of the US proposal followed and was unanimous. No one has the right to declare Kyoto dead, declared Sweden’s Environment Minister. President Bush was unrepentant: I appreciate your point of view, but this is the American position because it’s right for America. Right for America should in fact be interpreted as right for American business interests. America, however, is not the only culprit in the process of environmental degradation – just the currently most powerful and with the greatest corporate interests to protect.

The idea of a world meeting to discuss world problems is not in itself wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is a recognition that problems such as environmental degradation, global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, world hunger, poverty, ill-health and ignorance are global problems that can only be tackled by action on a world-scale. The problem is that under capitalism, with its built-in competitive struggle for profits, the necessary unity of purpose and co-operative action is impossible to achieve. Under capitalism the most that can possibly emerge from such meetings are trade-offs between competing sectional interests.

Only when capitalism has gone and the resources of the Earth have become the common heritage of all humanity can a meeting of representatives from all parts of the world be a success in terms both of being able to decide the urgent action needed and of being to implement it quickly and effectively.