By Donella Meadows
–June 19, 1997–
Five years ago the leaders of 120 nations assembled at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and signed a list of environmental pledges called Agenda 21. Next week (June 23-27) the U.N. General Assembly will hold a special “Rio Plus Five” session to check their progress.
There has been no progress.
A UNEP report prepared for the meeting says that fresh water and productive topsoil are more polluted and scarce than they were five years ago. The world’s commercial fisheries are overfished; some have crashed. Greenhouse gas emissions are soaring upward, though the industrial countries pledged to keep them at 1990 levels. Only a few European countries even appear to care.
UNEP says: ”The environment has continued to degrade …. Progress towards a global sustainable future is just too slow. Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient … to address the most pressing environmental problems — even though technology and knowledge are available to do so. The gap between what has been done thus far and what is realistically needed is widening.”
The NGO crowd at the U.N. — the nongovernmental organizations, the colorful and truthful hecklers at these global meetings — is calling the gathering “Rio Minus Five.”
The Internet throbs with their outrage. Here, for example, from an observer in the Netherlands, is an assessment of the Rio pledge that nations will seek out “sustainable patterns of consumption and production.” (Each point below corresponds to an item in Agenda 21. I’ve Americanized the language.)
1. No national government has developed a policy for sustainable consumption and production.
2. Greater efficiency in the use of resources has been canceled by increases in production. Cleaner production methods have been adopted only in some OECD countries.
3. Volumes of waste and pollution have stabilized or increased.
4. Few eco-labeling schemes exist to inform consumers. The World Trade Organization and corporations are squashing information on health and environmental impacts of products.
5. Government purchases of “green” products such as recycled paper are still marginal.
6. Environmentally sound pricing has gone nowhere. Even a proposed small international tax on airplane fuel was not adopted.
7. In the former Soviet bloc progress in closing down inefficient industries has been offset by rising consumerism. Developing countries have not met their commitment to avoid hazardous and wasteful patterns of consumption and production.
Those are generalities. Here’s what they look like as they play out specifically day by day. These are recent items; I could cite similar ones from just about any week in the past five years.
The White House has just asked the EPA to weaken its proposed clean air standards for smog and soot. Scientific studies suggested higher standards to protect public health, but industry lobbying overwhelmed health advocates such as the American Lung Association.
Canadian scientists recently met to discuss their concern about acid rain. According to a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail: “Most lakes in Eastern Canada are not recovering at all …; fish populations are not rebounding; trees located on acid-sensitive soils … are dying; forest growth in southern Quebec has declined by 30 percent; current emission targets are inadequate to protect lakes and forests.”
Detroit is planning to make bigger sports vans and utility vehicles. Ford has one on the drawing board that will be 19 feet long and weigh twice as much as a typical family car. These vehicles are classified as trucks and thus escape fuel economy and emission regulations.
A report from the Institute of Policy Studies says that the World Bank since the Earth Summit has poured $9.4 billion into fossil fuel projects that increase the rate of climate change.
It’s not as though the Agenda 21 goals are wildly ambitious. They were hammered out by the world’s governments, and they disappointed environmentalists the world over. A Greenpeace banner at the end of the Earth Summit showed a picture of the planet stamped with the message: “SOLD.” Even if every Agenda 21 goal were promptly met by every nation, the environment, and every living creature that depends on the environment, including you and me, would still be in trouble.
But you can’t say that loudly at U.N. headquarters. I tried once. I was hushed by officials who know full well that Agenda 21 is insufficient, but that getting governments to go even that far will take a major effort. (U.N. officials, dependent upon member governments for their positions and salaries, are necessarily timid. I wish the paranoid folks who fear the black helicopters could understand that.)
The good news about Rio Plus Five is that the NGOs will be there. They are free from the pomposity of high office, the fears of civil servants, and the pressure of having to produce rising profits every quarter. They can speak for the people and the planet. If there’s anything worth listening to at Rio Plus or Minus Five, it will be them.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997