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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In June of 1992, leaders from most of the world's nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the largest environmental conference in history. By many measures the United Nations Earth Summit was a success, producing landmark treaties to reduce global warming, and to help preserve the diversity of plant and animal species. The Earth Summit was also seen as a powerful expression of a new environmental consciousness sweeping the globe. Later this month in New York, the UN will host another high profile gathering to assess progress since the 1992 summit. As John Rudolph reports, the euphoria that followed Rio has been overtaken by a sense of disappointment.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Five Junes ago in 1992, leaders from most of the world's nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the largest environmental conclave in history. By many measures the United Nations Earth Summit was a success. It produced 2 treaties to protect the planet's ecosystems. Rio was also seen as a powerful expression of a new environmental consciousness sweeping the globe. Later this month in New York, the UN will host another major gathering to assess progress since the 1992 summit. And as John Rudolph reports, the euphoria that followed the Rio meeting has been overtaken by a sense of disappointment.

(Man: "Thank you all very much indeed." Someone in audience: "Thank you!"

RUDOLPH: When the United Nations Earth Summit ended 5 years ago you could almost hear a huge collective sigh of relief. Two weeks of hard bargaining had produced groundbreaking treaties on reducing global warming, and preserving the diversity of plant and animal species. There was also broad agreement on a plan to encourage sustainable development around the world. Even so, lots of questions remained. As the 110 heads of state who attended the conference left for home, thousands of diplomats, political activists, and journalists were left to ponder the future of the global environment. The Secretary General of the Earth Summit, Maurice Strong of Canada, summed up many people's feelings: a combination of optimism and fear.

STRONG: Every bit of evidence I've seen persuades me -- I'm not a doomsdayer by nature -- just persuades me that we are on a course that is leading to tragedy. We've got the basis for change now. But we've got to push like hell to make sure it takes place.

RUDOLPH: Fast forward now to 1997. Today there's a feeling among many who attended the Earth Summit that efforts to solve the world's major environmental problems have stalled.

RUNNELS: If you trace the history of the environmental movement back to the 19th century, it goes in peaks and valleys, and we're clearly in a valley.

RUDOLPH: David Runnels was the editor of the Earth Summit Times, a newspaper that chronicled the events in Rio. He's now an environmental consultant based in Ottawa.

RUNNELS: There's been really no leadership in this issue since Rio in 1992. And the deal that was done in Rio, in very rough terms the deal being that we in the north would transfer more technology and more resources to the south to help them cope with these challenges, hasn't happened. And in fact, instead of having more technology and more financial resources, they got less.

RUDOLPH: According to a recently released UN document, since the Earth Summit the state of the global environment has continued to deteriorate, with rising levels of toxic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and solid waste. The document goes on to say that renewable resources, particularly fresh water, forests, topsoil, and marine fish stocks, continue to be used at rates that are clearly unsustainable. Even Maurice Strong sounds less optimistic than he did 5 years ago.

STRONG: There's been something of an environmental recession in the United States, with the last Congress in particular, and in the developing countries we've seen a tremendous resurgence of economic growth. The developing countries, particularly the larger developing countries of Asia and South America, are now leading the world in a resurgence of global growth. But they're by and large following the same kind of pathway that we set in our example. And that does not bode well for the environment.

RUDOLPH: But other UN officials are less pessimistic. They say the 1992 Earth Summit kicked off a process that will eventually show results. Joke Waller Hunter of the Netherlands directs the UN's Division for Sustainable Development.

WALLER HUNTER: It takes time, definitely, to go from the stage of agreements, as were reached in Rio in 1992, and they were substantive, to the actual implementation. First you have to set up all the institutional arrangements for that, and then before results show at the ground it may take a while. And that's one of the reasons why we still see the trends, many of the trends, going in the wrong direction, while governments are taking action to curb them.

RUDOLPH: Waller Hunter points out that 150 nations have set up national
councils for sustainable development. These councils are supposed to make sure that environmental factors are taken into account when countries embark on projects like building new power plants or highways. Some of the councils have been effective. But many, including the one established by the US government, have seen most of their recommendations go unheeded. This is likely to be a major stumbling block when the bargaining begins in New York later this month. Industrial powers, including the US, Germany, and Japan, want developing nations like China, India, and Brazil, to adopt more stringent environmental policies, especially those aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But developing nations resist this idea. They argue that the US and others need to take the first step by reducing their own emissions, and they're also seeking an increase in financial assistance from the industrialized world for sustainable development projects. Dr. Rama Krishna is a specialist in international law, with close ties to developing nations who will be represented at the upcoming UN meeting.

KRISHNA: If the mood is not changed, and if countries such as the United States and Japan and the United Kingdom and Germany and France don't come forward and say that this cannot continue, and if it does it is going to affect our interests vitally and advance a set of measures, I think there is every reason to be very unhappy and, more importantly, concerned.

RUDOLPH: No one is confident that the logjam over finances or global warming will be broken in New York. But there is hope for change around the margins. For example, the US now favors specific timetables and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a position it rejected at the 1992 Earth Summit. Meanwhile, some countries with large tropical forests have dropped their opposition to an international agreement on forestry practices. There's also hope for progress on agreements to improve water quality and curtail over-fishing. But the question still remains: can the nations of the world act together to protect the Earth's environment? UN Undersecretary General Maurice Strong isn't sure.

STRONG: The cancer is spreading, but hopefully it's not too late. But every day, every hour, and certainly every year in which we fail to move is going to make it much more difficult and reduce the chances that we will make that transition to a sustainable mode of life.

RUDOLPH: For Living on Earth, this is John Rudolph.



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