TCS Daily

What's at Stake in Jo'burg

By Julian Morris - July 19, 2002 12:00 AM

At the end of August, up to sixty thousand people are expected to descend on Johannesburg, South Africa, for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. This leviathan jamboree organised by the United Nations was originally intended as a follow-up to the 1992 'Earth Summit', but has since taken on a life of its own, with a plethora of new issues being laid on the table. Indeed the plate of the negotiators is so full that some have questioned whether there will be any agreement at all. There has even been talk of a repeat of the fiasco that embroiled last year's Racism summit in Durban, South Africa, which ended in disarray. In many respects this would be a 'positive' outcome. Certainly it would be better than agreement on some of the daft ideas being pushed by NGOs and the UN.

So what is all the fuss about? For the uninitiated, even the subject of the conference may seem arcane. What on earth does 'sustainable development' mean? Discussions typically begin with the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." This is, of course, motherhood and apple pie: Who could possibly object to policies that will ensure that both current and future 'needs' are met? Well, the devil, as they say, lies in the detail.

Most of those engaged in discussions about sustainable development assume that it is about achieving specific outcomes, such as stabilizing the climate or saving elephants. There are at least two problems with this. First, unless there is unanimous agreement on the outcomes that are desired, attempts to impose policies to achieve chosen outcomes will lead to conflict. Second, by focussing on specific outcomes rather than on general rules of conduct, the methods employed to achieve these outcomes might be considered morally dubious.

Rio, Agenda 21, Rio +10

The first problem has led to the most ridiculous camel of an agenda for achieving sustainable development. In the build-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, the UN, in collaboration with NGOs and rich-country bureaucrats, developed a vision of sustainable development that primarily reflects the aesthetic preferences of a few dominant, multinational NGOs funded and controlled by people in rich countries. These include WWF (that's the World Wildlife Fund, not the World Wrestling Federation), Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and a few other groups that have sufficient wealth to be involved in such an exercise. The views and concerns of people in poor countries were largely excluded. Nevertheless, perhaps attracted by the carrot of foreign aid and the dream of saving the world, representatives of over 170 nations - rich and poor alike - signed on to this UN-NGO vision in Rio in 1992, when they agreed to Agenda 21.

The website of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) proclaims that "Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment." In its 40 sections, it covers issues such as 'combating poverty', 'changing consumption patterns', 'demographic dynamics', and 'protecting and promoting human health'. It has plans to protect everything from 'the atmosphere' to 'the oceans'. In sum, Agenda 21 is a plan for global governance.

With the exception of the EU and some of its member states, the governments of rich countries seem mostly to have ignored Agenda 21. Even EU governments do little more than pay lip service to it. In particular, few of the financial commitments made to poor countries have been fulfilled. As a result, the governments of poor countries have become sceptical of the whole process and it seems unlikely that further agreement will be reached on many of these issues at Johannesburg. In 1997, the pro-sustainable development Inter-Parliamentary Union "expressed great concern that results obtained since UNCED [Rio] with regard to the achievement of sustainable development were so meagre and that the situation had worsened in several fields (depletion of natural resources, world-wide pollution, the food crisis, destabilisation of societies)." Little progress has been made since then and full global government is clearly a few years off. NGOs realise this and are prioritising their activities, with the intention of achieving a narrow set of objectives, including:

Ratification of the Kyoto Climate Treaty.

Kyoto is seen by many NGOs as the totem of global environmental governance and for good reason: If implemented, it would amount to central planning of the world's energy resources. Because energy is a basic factor of production, this would lead to huge disruptions in productive activities, causing economic slowdown. As rich economies feel the pinch, they will reduce imports. Worst affected would be people living in the poorest countries of the world. Unable to attract heavy industry, these countries will see exports to rich countries fall. If ratified, Kyoto would reduce the size of the economic cake and nearly everyone's slice of it.

Renewable Energy

Environmental NGOs promote 'renewables' as the sustainable solution to the world's energy problems. But people in poor countries already use 'renewable' energy sources, such as wood and dung. What they desperately need are more efficient and reliable forms of energy that are less polluting, such as oil, gas and electricity. Even the most polluting coal-fired electricity generator is less harmful to health than the indoor wood stoves so commonly used in Asia and Africa. Whilst wind and solar power have their place as 'bridge' energies in remote places, they are not likely to be a realistic solution for most of the world's poor in the next couple of decades.

Ratification of Various Other Environmental Treaties

Environmental NGOs want governments to ratify the Stockholm Convention, the Basel Convention and various other treaties that affect production and trade in important chemicals. The consequences of putting these treaties into force could be dramatic.

The Basel Convention has already caused both economic and environmental damage by undermining more environmentally sound lead recycling systems to India. The formal lead recycling industry in India is a high throughput business and has traditionally relied upon imported used lead. The Basel Convention restricts such imports and as a result has forced a large part of the formal recycling industry to close. However, India still produces a lot of used lead, and this is now predominantly recycled in the informal sector. Because the informal sector is unregulated - it typically consists of back-yard operations - implementation of the Basel convention in India has almost certainly been harmful to both the environment and human health.

The Stockholm Convention restricts production and trade in DDT, dieldrin and several other halogen-based chemicals. Many see these chemicals as pariahs. But the public health community has widely backed the continued use of DDT because it is the most cost-effective means of controlling malaria mosquitoes. Moreover, DDT is now primarily used in tiny doses on the inside of dwellings. In such applications, DDT is not known to have any effect on human health and the worst effect it has on the environment is to kill a few insects living in the huts and shacks. Meanwhile, dieldrin remains the most cost-effective means of controlling locust plagues and, even though it is toxic to humans, there is surely a case for permitting its continued use under appropriately regulated conditions. The blanket ban approach of the Stockholm Convention will prevent poor countries from using the most cost-effective solutions to their real problems. That is hardly sustainable.

Trade and Environment Cases

The European Union (EU), with the support of various NGOs, is pushing for a reversal of the burden of proof in WTO disputes over trade sanctions that have been imposed in support of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). The idea is that a country that is party to an MEA should be allowed to impose restriction on imports from another country (regardless of whether that country is a member of the MEA) in order to fulfil the objectives of the MEA. At present such sanctions would be in breach of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) unless the party imposing the sanctions can show that they comply with Article XX of that agreement (which amongst other things allows trade restrictions if it can be shown that those restrictions are necessary in order to protect the environment or human health, or to conserve natural resources). What the EU proposals would do is to reverse the burden of proof - effectively forcing the party against whom the sanctions are imposed to show that the sanctions are not justified.

One consequence would be that the EU and other parties to the Kyoto Protocol could then justify restrictions on trade in goods from non-parties, such as the US, Australia and Canada on the grounds that producers benefited from artificially low energy costs.

Ethical Investment and Corporate Accountability

Various NGOs are pushing for an agreement on ethical investment and corporate accountability, which would require multinational corporations (MNCs) to comply with identical 'ethical' standards regardless of where they operate. Since these 'ethical' standards would be defined by the UN-NGO coalition, they will inevitably contain all manner of politically correct criteria. The beneficiaries of such an agreement would be the NGOs, who would achieve the power they crave. The losers would be everyone else. By raising the cost of doing business, without providing any substantive benefits, such standards would discourage investment, which will reduce the number of people who benefit, directly and indirectly, from the activities of MNCs.

Increased Aid

The quid pro quo offered to poor countries in return for agreeing to the above will be more aid. In March this year at the UN Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, rich country governments pledged more aid to poor countries - especially for education and health. At Johannesburg, poor country governments will probably be threatened with the removal of this carrot if they don't sign up to the eco-imperialist proposals of the UN-NGO coalition.

Most money spent on 'aid' to poor countries over the past fifty years has ended up enriching the incompetent, the insane and the corrupt. Probably most aid money is still wasted in these ways. There is therefore a strong case for narrowing the aims of aid so that it is only used to address real problems for which external support can actually improve the situation in the medium to long term. Paying for AIDS-related educational materials and anti-retrovirals for distribution in countries ravaged by AIDS meets that criterion. Using aid as a carrot to entice the governments of poor countries into signing up to the environmental agenda of rich country pressure groups emphatically does not meet the criterion. With the AIDS crisis in Africa and Asia worsening, such a quid pro quo is nothing short of morally repugnant.

Global Governance Is Not the Answer

The final preparatory meeting for Johannesburg, which took place in Bali, Indonesia, in late May and early June, ended in deadlock. There was no agreement on a draft text for Johannesburg. Environmental groups immediately blamed the US and other rich countries, but the reality is that the poor countries simply wouldn't accept the quid-pro-quo on offer - and rightly so. Environmentalists have subsequently made much about the risks of failure at Johannesburg, with ludicrous reports being issued almost daily claiming that the planet is dying. In reality, failure to reach agreement at Johannesburg would represent a victory for those who believe that sustainable development will not come from global governance.



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