Printer Friendly

Outlook for the Earth Summit.

The Earth Summit -- officially the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)---is a call to action. In fact, some are billing it as our last best chance to put our environmental house in order.

Scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 1-12, UNCED will be the largest, most ambitious conference in the history of the world, with as many as 8,000 delegates from more than 160 countries and 100 heads of state meeting to chart a course toward sustainable development. It will also attract 20,000 to 30,000 representatives from local, national, and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who will participate as observers and hold a parallel "Global Forum."

Maurice Strong of Canada, secretary general of UNCED, says the conference was conceived as "a means of mobilizing the political will of nations to take a number of concrete actions to redress the world's environmental and economic imbalances." Hopes are high that it will result in serious steps by all nations to protect the world's natural resources and ensure that future economic development is done in a sustainable way.

Negotiations to this point have proven difficult, however, particularly between industrialized and developing countries. In addition, NGOs initially excited about prospects of participating in UNCED have become disgruntled, both with their united access to the most serious negotiating sessions and with the weak compromises that have resulted from efforts to achieve broad consensus. One of UNCED's most promising fundamental strategies--working to attain broad international consensus-may, it seems, turn out to be a fatal flaw.

Significant dissatisfaction also exists over the role the United States has played to date. Although it has the largest, best-organized delegation, the United States is widely perceived as an impediment to serious agreements rather than as a facilitator or committed leader. U.S. delegates have taken firm stands against targets and timetables for reducing the carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change; against new financial assistance to developing nations for environmental actions; and against new international institutions to help implement those actions.

At this point, President Bush is the only leader from the world's seven major industrialized nations who has still not committed to attending the conference. It appears as if "politics as usual" is the president's choice in this election year. He will wait as long as he can to determine UNCED's prospects for success and decide what the political costs and benefits of attending might be. That, unfortunately, does not fit the ideals of mobilizing political will and demonstrating international leadership. As we go to press, however, it appears that the United States may be softening its stance by agreeing to set some C[O.sub.2] emissions targets and offering $75 million to developing countries for climate-change concerns. This provides some basis for optimism that a stronger agreement can be achieved.


In 1989, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for UNCED, dedaring as its purpose to "elaborate strategies and measures to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation in the context of strengthened national and international efforts to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development in all countries."

Since that 1989 resolution, four Preparatory !Committee (PrepCom) meetings have set the stage for UNCED. The first Prepcom, in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 1990, established the framework for discussions, assigning specific issues to three working groups while leaving "cross-cutting" issues to the plenary session of all delegates. The second meeting, in Geneva, Switzerland, in March 1991, established a common working basis among delegates by reviewing factual reports on the issues. The third, also in Geneva in August 1991, marked the beginnings of negotiations.

It was during that third PrepCom that the harsh realities of efforts to achieve broad consensus first came to the fore. The attending nations split into two camps--the industrialized North and developing South--and the debate turned acrimonious. Little progress was made.

PrepCom W, scheduled for March 2 to April 3 in New York, is where the most crucial negotiations will be conducted--and the destiny of UNCED determined. As I write this, the scene for PrepCom IV is best described in terms of tension--between North and South, national sovereignty and international responsibility, and governments and NGOs. These tensions will play themselves out in the context of overburdened delegates with an extraordinarily heavy agenda and a great sense of urgency as the Earth Summit approaches.

The agenda for PrepCom W--and UNCED--is complex and massive, even for a five-week meeting. Working group I is focusing on detailed resolutions concerning air pollution, climate change, biological diversity, and land resources--including forests. Working group II is addressing concerns for the world's oceans and marine environments as well as hazardous and toxic wastes; and Working group III is tackling legal questions andinstitutional changes needed to implement international agreements. Broad, overlapping concerns such as poverty, population growth, financial resources, technology transfer, and cross-cultural issues will be addressed at UNCED during the general sessions.

It is hoped that five major agreements will be ratified at UNCED. They are an Earth Charter setting out fundamental principles for sustainable development, natural resource management, and environmental protection; a 1,000-page blueprint for action called Agenda 21; two conventions from parallel negotiations--one on climate change and one on biodiversity; and a set of principles for protecting and managing the world's forests.


At a July 1990 economic summit of industrialized nations in Houston, President

Bush called for negotiations for an international agreement on global forests, to be concluded at UNCED. During PrepCom II, delegates from developing countries argued that insufficient time remained for achieving a fullfledged agreement and that a statement on forest principles should be drafted instead.

At that meeting, lengthy--often intense--discussions of forest principles reflected the differing perspectives of North and South. Developing countries suggested that industrialized countries do not really appreciate the array of social and economic forces underlying the deforestation problem. They demanded that issues such as poverty, the rights of indigenous people, national debt, and international trade be addressed at the same time as proposals on forest management and the creation of forest preserves.

PrepCom III resulted in a nine-page draft that attempts to respond to these concerns. It contains statements covering areas such as forest planning; the fights of forest dwellers and local communities; the integration of economics, ecology, and social values; the interests of future generations; the establishment of sustainable forest-management systems; and international coordination, monitoring, and trade policies.

Some statements were tentatively agreed upon at PrepCom III, but others were highly contentious. One of the most acrimonious disputes arose between North and South nations over the issue of funding. Who would pay for the proposed forestry programs, most of which place the greatest burden on developing nations least able to afford them?

But perhaps the greatest disagreement arose over the basic issue of sovereignty. The "internationalist" approach to sovereignty--most appreciated by nations already industrialized' recognizes the importance of forests to the world and would establish policies based on the responsiblity and accountability of each nation to the international community. The "nationalist" approach--preferred by countries still developing their resources--implies that while all nations should be responsible members of the international community, individual nations have the right to develop their forests to meet their own social and economic needs.

Perspectives differ widely on whether UNCED will succeed in producing significant new agreements for international cooperation. The differing expectations often have to do with different views over how strong the agreements must be in order to achieve success, Over the past two years, Maurice Strong has often said that if UNCED does not succeed, he will ensure that it is a "spectacular failure." As the conference approaches, it is becoming evident that truly landmark agreements will not be signed. Strong and other UNCED officials have recently begun expressing the more pragmatic view that if UNCED elicits serious commitment by governments around the world to continue efforts toward global cooperation and to involve NGOs, that commitment would be a significant accomplishment.

That is probably true, especially given the ambitious nature of UNCED's initial goals. But a strong commitment by major industrialized nations such as the United States would certainly be more satisfying. Congress has passed several resolutions urging President Bush to attend UNCED and demonstrate U.S. commitment to global environmental cooperation. Although the administration recently showed some willingness to shift from its intractable positions on global climate-change concerns, it is still unclear how much of a leadership role the U.S. will play and how far President Bush will go along the road to Rio.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:World Forests; includes related article; United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
Author:Gray, Gerald
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Tree sanity.
Next Article:Owls vs. jobs: sorting out the impacts.

Related Articles
Desertification treaty on the way.
Forging a new global partnership.
The path to the Johannesburg Summit.
Saving planet Earth. (Environment).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters