The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was surrounded by more hype than any previous environmental conference. Agenda 21, the best known product of Rio, was described by UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, as a “comprehensive and far-reaching programme for sustainable development.”
As M. Grubb et al argue in their critical assessment of the Earth Summit, there are “thousands of ‘thou shouldst’ commandments” in this huge document. These commitments cover just about every environmental issue you could wish to mention, along with social issues such as poverty and education. However, as Grubb continues, “most are generalisations which are hard to define or measure, and hardly any of them are backed up by adequate resources.”(1)
Boutros Boutros Ghali expected Agenda 21 to play a “crucial role” in “galvanising international cooperation”, ensuring a flow of new resources from nations participating in the Earth Summit that would enable them to address these many issues. But what exactly was the cost of Agenda 21 to be and have these costs since been met?
The UN estimated the cost of implementing Agenda 21 at approximately $600 billion per year between 1993 and 2000. Of this, ‘the North’ (referring to the developed industrialised nations of the west) would contribute $125 billion annually.(2)
The worldwide cost of phasing out CFC production has been estimated at $1.8 billion between 1990 to 2008. The U.S. government clearly feared this funding being duplicated for other environmental crises, such as global warming, which would cause their contribution to climb into the billions of dollars.”(3)
To meet its target, Agenda 21 affirmed the UN goal of increasing Overseas Development Aid funding from rich countries to 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This would more than double their level of contributions, which were approximately 0.3% of GDP. Most of the nations concerned accepted this (the U.S.A. being one notable exception)(4), although only a few accepted a timetable for the increase in funding to be phased in. So what has happened since?
“Since (the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development or ‘Earth Summit’), many countries have cited recessionary pressures as an excuse to hold their aid-giving at a constant level. Eight countries actually cut their 1992 aid budgets in real terms and total flow of aid from OECD countries remained at the same level in 1992 and 1993–0.33% of OECD GNP—that it has been since 1970.”(5)
“The much heralded 15% Earth Increment, which is mentioned in Agenda 21 and was supposed to have added annually between $3 billion and $5 billion to IDA’s (International Development Agency) resource base, did not appear when the tenth replenishment of IDA was announced in December 1992.”
Clearly, the hope of the former UN secretary general for new resources has not been met. Some will put this down to the fact that Agenda 21 is not a legal document but merely a statement of non-binding principles. Yet the reluctance among nations to make legal commitments to solving environmental problems, is not the root cause of this lack of progress. Those agreements which have been grounded in law have still failed to meet their targets, as is the case with the two agreements at Rio which were legally binding—the Biodiversity Convention and the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Convention on Biological Diversity
One issue on which Agenda 21 was backed up by a separate international agreement was biodiversity. Biodiversity is a term referring to the variety among living organisms and the ecological communities they inhabit. As Agenda 21 points out:
Our planet’s essential goods and services depend on the variety and variability of genes, species, populations and ecosystems. Biological resources feed and clothe us and provide, housing, medicines and spiritual nourishment… The current decline in biodiversity is largely the result of human activity and represents a serious threat to human development.(6)
Estimates of the number of species currently in existence vary between 5 million and 30 million species. Most biologists think 10 million is the best approximation. Only 1.4 million of these have been named and so there are still many undiscovered species. As is explained by Environment journal,
Tropical forests, predominantly in Central and South America and Southeast Asia, contain from 50 to 90 per cent of all species, including two thirds of all vacular plant species and up to 96 per cent of insect species. At current deforestation rates, it is estimated that between 4 and 8 per cent of all rainforest species would be in danger of extinction by 2015, and from 17 to 35 per cent would be in danger of extinction by 2040.(7)
Clearly, tropical deforestation is one of the most important threats to biodiversity yet this is a problem that still persists and is even escalating.
Opened for signature in June 1992, the Biodiversity Convention was the first completely international convention aimed at dealing with this issue. The previous regional agreements had made very limited impact. For example, in an assessment of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the United Nations Environment Program concluded that “the level of activity associated with the Convention is low, because there is no provision for compliance monitoring and reporting.”(8)
Limitations of the Convention
The Convention set no concrete targets.
Almost every single provision of the Biological Diversity Convention specifying the obligations of contracting parties is qualified by the phrase ‘as far as possible’… or similar language.(9)
This of course, leaves open the possibility of neglecting the need to preserve biodiversity when there is profit to be made.
The U.S.A. did not sign, since the convention was a threat to its biotechnology industry, which uses the resources of the third world for its own commercial purposes. The U.S.A. is the world leader in the biotechnology industry, with annual sales projected to reach $50 billion by the year 2000. It feared paragraphs 15 and 16 of the convention which would permit developing countries to enact laws which would force drug firms to transfer patent rights to a developing country.
Funding to support the Biodiversity Convention
By 1993, 0.3 billion from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was directed towards projects aiming to preserve biodiversity.(10) Ironically, the World Bank has a dominant role in managing these biodiversity projects. (Although, these projects represent a minute fraction of the $140 billion worth of leading commitments of the World Bank.) As M.P. Wells comments in International Environmental Affairs:
Without a shadow of doubt, development programs and policies either financed or influenced in some way by the World Bank have had a profoundly negative influence on biodiversity during the last four decades.(11)
Many non-governmental organisations are concerned that the GEF is merely serving to put a “positive green tint on the negative environmental impacts of Bank-financed development projects.”(12) These projects all concentrate upon ‘protected areas’ or ‘reserves’ and do not address the problem . One issue on which Agenda 21 was backed up by a separate international agreement was biodiversity. Biodiversity is a term referring to the variety among living organisms and the ecological communities they inhabit. As Agenda 21 points out: “once grant funds have been exhausted,” explains Wells, “The subsequent success of projects depends upon government conservation agencies which are weak” and lack the necessary financial, human, and scientific resources.”
The more than 45 GEF biodiversity projects that do not include trust funds face a substantial risk, if not the virtual certainty, of financial collapse as their GEF grants become exhausted in the next five years.(13)
- (1) 1992 Earth Summit: A Critical Assessment—M. Grubb et al
- (2) Environment, April 1994
- (3) Environment, April 1994
- (4) The Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol –Cornell Int. Law Journal, quoted in Environment, April 1994
- (5) “The U.S.A. was persuaded to agree to widespread references concerning the need for ‘new and additional resources’ for developing countries, as long as specific numbers were not entailed” The Earth Summit Agreements—A Guide and Assessment—M.Grubb et al (Earthscan 1993)
- (6) Environment, April 1994
- (7) Earth Summit 92—United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED), p.129
- (8) Environment, May 93
- (9) Environmental Data Report—United Nations Environment Program 1993–4
- (10) Environment, May 96
- (11) GEF & Prospects for the Biodiversity Convention—M.P. Wells; International Environmental Affairs 6.1
- (12) GEF & Prospects for the Biodiversity Convention—M.P. Wells; International Environmental Affairs 6.1
- (13) Prospects for the Biodiversity Convention—M.P. Wells; International Environmental Affairs 6.1