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|August 26, 2002|
The Rediff Special/Jeet Thayil
The United States has traditionally been seen as one of the countries most responsible for the current state of the environment, and for heightened concern about the planet's future. Analysts say any lasting improvement in environment protection measures will need involvement on the part of the United States.
At the Johannesburg summit, possibly the largest of its kind, over 100 heads of state are expected to put together a set of goals for the 21st century. There will be no formal treaty this time perhaps in view of the limited success such treaties have had in the past. More than a one-off summit, the Johannesburg meeting is one stage of a continuing process of environmental awareness.
For the last two decades, and particularly since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there have been dozens of conventions aimed at protecting the environment. They have ranged from the narrow and obscure to the sweeping and visionary, from treaties to protect biological resources to those that seek to outlaw chemicals that deplete the Earth's ozone layer.
A convention on climate change, for instance, was adopted in 1992 and took effect two years later. Signed by most countries including the United States, the convention aimed to use voluntary measures to reduce industrial-country emissions. The goal was to reduce such emissions by 2000. The agreement failed: emissions actually rose by 10 percent all over the world, and in the United States they rose by 16 percent.
There have been successes too. A 1987 agreement in Montreal, enacted two years later and signed by almost all countries including the United States, limited the production of substances such as the chlorofluorocarbons found in spray cans that destroy the earth's ozone layer.
The ozone layer is a kind of curtain that surrounds the planet and prevents ultraviolet radiation from penetrating into the atmosphere. Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, levels of harmful substances fell to such levels that scientists were able to predict the repairing of the ozone layer in around 50 years.
Some 65,000 executives, diplomats, businessmen, analysts, and non-governmental organizations are expected to participate at the Johannesburg summit. It will mark the 10th anniversary of the Rio summit. Some of the areas the Johannesburg meeting expects to address include global poverty, health, education, population, hunger, the environment, and of course the mantra of the global set: sustainable development.
'Sustainability' has come to be defined in many ways and today the word is defined in far looser terms than it originally was. Its original definition came from 'Our Common Future', a report prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The document has come to be known as 'The Brundtland Report' after Groharlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and head of the commission that prepared the report.
'Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future,' said the report. 'Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth (the notion of sustainability) recognizes that the problem of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits.'
That is now considered the standard definition of sustainable development. "This definition entails an inter-generational commitment," Judith Brister told rediff.com. "It involves the use of resources in such a way that future generations will meet their needs."
Brister is the senior communications officer in the Office of the Under-Secretary General of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. This is the UN department responsible for organizing the Johannesburg summit. She said the concept of sustainable development as used in UN circles "entails a balance between environmental, social and economic dimensions."
Some analysts are decidedly upbeat about the achievements since the Rio Summit. "I believe we have progressed a lot in these 10 years," said Manuel Dengo, Chief of the UN's Natural Resources, Water and Small Island Developing States, also a part of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
Dengo said the adjustments necessary for sustainable development could not be made from one day to the next since the processes that define sustainable development are long-term.
"That's important to understand," he said. "If you want to reverse non-sustainable consumption patterns, it is not something you can achieve in a short period of time. It requires changes in behavior, in culture, in political will, and in the legal framework."
He pointed out that the emission of chlorofluorocarbons had been reduced dramatically. Just five years ago deodorants and spray paint cans all included ozone-damaging fluorocarbons. They no longer do.
"Ten years ago your readers did not understand sustainable development," said Dengo. "Today there is a great deal of concern about it. You can measure the progress. I am convinced that a great deal of progress has been made."
He said: "It is not as visible as building a new city but it is a significant achievement nonetheless."
Design by Uday Kuckian
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