By Donella Meadows
–April 14, 1994–
The Earth Summit in Rio, the largest global meeting ever held, is nearly two years behind us but still very much alive. Heads of state from nearly every government went home from Rio bearing treaties to implement, including a climate convention, a biodiversity agreement, and a sweeping environmental mandate called Agenda 21. There is a new United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. Billions of dollars are pouring into a Global Environmental Facility to help make things happen.
Those were the official outcomes, the results of the pompous, heavily guarded, formal conference of presidents and prime ministers. The other part of the Earth Summit was the Global Forum, open to anyone. Eighteen thousand people attended it — African midwives and American church pastors, Brazilian tribal chiefs and Norwegian businessmen, Filipino teachers and German engineers. This gathering, as representative of humanity as any gathering ever has been, drew up its own treaties.
If you want a clear demonstration of how citizens lead their leaders, you can compare the official treaties of Rio with the peoples’ treaties, a task that has just become easier thanks to two new publications. One, put out by the Technical University of Denmark, contrasts the two sets of Rio agreements on the topic of energy. The other, published by the Commonweal Sustainable Future Group in California, assembles all the citizens’ treaties.
The official Agenda 21, written in mushy UN-ese, says, with regard to greenhouse gas emissions; “The basic and ultimate objective of this programme area is to reduce adverse effects on the atmosphere from the energy sector by promoting policies or programmes, as appropriate, to increase the contribution of environmentally safe and sound and cost effective energy systems, particularly new and renewable ones, ….” and so forth. No targets, no teeth.
The peoples’ treaty says crisply: “We will work for the progressive reduction of [greenhouse gases], having as an objective a reduction of 20% by the year 2000, 50% by the year 2025, and close to 100% by the year 2050.”
Agenda 21 says nothing, as far as I can see, about nuclear power, nuclear wastes, or nuclear weapons. The peoples’ treaty says: “All forms of nuclear energy have dangerous environmental, health, social, and military consequences and are therefore unsustainable and unacceptable. We will insist on a moratorium on the development and construction of nuclear facilities and uranium mines and a phaseout of existing facilities as soon as possible.”
Agenda 21 urges governments to promote free trade, and in particular to “avoid the use of trade restrictions or distortions as a means to offset differences in cost arising from difference in environmental standards.” That means, say, that the U.S. shouldn’t bar cheap coal imports from nations that produce the coal from unreclaimed strip mines. Or that the European nations should allow their high energy taxes to be undermined by imports made with untaxed energy elsewhere.
The citizens’ treaty disagrees. It points out that NAFTA, GATT, and other trade agreements were arrived at by a closed, undemocratic process and calls for their complete rewrite, with public participation. It says that communities, states, and nations should have the right to set health, social, and environmental standards without having those standards challenged as unfair trade barriers.
Both Agenda 21 and the peoples’ treaty ask for energy prices that tell the truth — prices undistorted by government subsidies, prices that include the full environmental and social costs of energy production and use. Agenda 21 says it carefully: “Without the stimulus of prices and market signals that make clear to producers and consumers the environmental costs of the consumption of energy …, significant changes in consumption and production patterns seem unlikely to occur…. Some progress has begun in the use of appropriate economic instruments to influence consumer behavior. These instruments include environmental charges and taxes…. This process should be encouraged in the light of country-specific conditions.”
The peoples’ treaty uses many fewer words: “We will insist on fully integrated environmental and economic accounting of all energy options.”
There are many areas of agreement between the two documents — areas where there is no excuse for delay in action. Some common themes from both sides of the Rio conference are: The developed countries should take the lead in reducing wasteful consumption. Governments should encourage the use of renewable energy sources. They should review their own purchasing policies and energy use, to demonstrate efficient, sustainable behavior.
The people add: “We will work for demilitarization to stop the enormous consumption of energy by armies and war. We will work for obligatory energy efficiency standards and product labeling. We will pressure governments for full public review of all energy decisions, including consultation with and approval of the people affected.”
The people mean it. All over the world.
(Copies of The People’s Treaties from the Earth Summit are available for $20 from the Commonweal Sustainable Futures Project, P.O. Box 316, Bolinas CA 94924, phone 415-868-0970, fax 415-868-2230. The energy report is issued for $15 by the Energy Group, Physics Department, Technical University of Denmark, 2800 Lyngby, Denmark, phone 45-42-881611, fax 45-45-931669.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994