Global Policy Forum

From Rio to Johannesburg:


By Kenny Bruno* and Joshua Karliner *

July 24, 2002

The world's governments, facing a deteriorating planet, are making a last ditch effort to save the Earth. The industrialized countries of the North and the developing countries of the South are scrambling to reach a global deal that will combine environmental protection and poverty alleviation. But a group of global corporations are claiming that they have the answers to the planet's environment and development woes and suggest redefining "sustainable development" to focus on "profit, planet and people." George Bush, President of the United States, sides with the corporate approach. Is the year 1992 or 2002? Take your pick.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro represented a high point of hope for the future of the world's environment, and the billions of people who live on this small planet. Gathered amidst Rio's contrasting splendor and misery, more than one hundred heads of state agreed on a series of accords in what was then billed as "the last chance to save the Earth."

The first Earth Summit was aimed at protecting the planet's environment and improving life for the most impoverished of its human inhabitants. The Summit's members produced agreements on climate and biodiversity, which established binding frameworks for tackling some of the world's most serious ecological threats. In addition, the several-hundred-page text known as Agenda 21 set forth a series of guidelines that have served as tools for local environmental movements to pressure their governments into taking action on key issues, from halting forest loss, to preserving the rights of indigenous people, to managing and preventing toxic waste.

World leaders, U.N. diplomats, nongovernmental organizations and, to some extent, the general public, emerged from the first Earth Summit in Brazil with a deepened understanding of the connections between the twin crises of environment and development. The output: an action plan outlining how to solve the problems. Yet ten years later, little progress had been made, necessitating a second Earth Summit.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa, was to be both a review of the first Earth Summit and an attempt to build on the letter and spirit of Rio. Unfortunately, the governments negotiating Earth Summit II had a steep hill to climb; they were confronted by the stinging reality that in the ten years since Rio, the global ecological balance had deteriorated and world poverty had deepened. In that time, the so-called "sustainable development" solution languished on the margins of an international politics dominated by anti-environmental forces.

And while a man named George Bush occupied the White House once again, the political climate into which WSSD was born was entirely different than that of the first Earth Summit a decade before. Framed by war and terrorism, a significant global recession, a spate of corporate bankruptcies and the U.S. government pulling out of international treaties left and right, the Johannesburg Summit found itself in a very different context than Rio.

In the decade between the two Earth Summits, corporate globalization had also consolidated itself through the establishment of the World Trade Organization. Because of this changed political climate, much of the WSSD negotiating text took a step backward from Agenda 21, diminishing the substance of the original Earth Summit agreements. By the time organizers reached the fourth and final preparatory meeting in Bali, Indonesia, many activists began to wonder if the world would be better off without the Johannesburg meeting.

The Ghost of Rio

In addition to this difficult political climate, the ghost of the first Earth Summit haunted Earth Summit II. Much of the spirit of Rio had been killed in Rio itself, when the negotiations mangled the idea of sustainable development almost beyond recognition. The idea of linking "environment" and "development" had its conceptual benefits, but, in the end, the Summit's failure to properly define the terms and the overwhelming corporate influence on the words' meaning corrupted the original concept. Sustainable development was originally defined as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. However, in Rio, "needs" were not defined, leaving over-consumption by the richest corporations and individuals untouched.

Moreover, despite the protest of many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) present at the Rio negotiations, the Earth Summit documents declared that free and open markets are necessary prerequisites for achieving sustainable development-in these documents, sustainable development was essentially equated with wealth creation. With this philosophy at the forefront, saving the environment and ending poverty were made compatible-on paper-with corporate globalization. In reality, globalization has only exacerbated the world's ecological travails. When confronted with the obvious contradictions between global markets and sustainability, negotiators blinked in Rio, and are poised to blink again in Johannesburg.

The first Earth Summit also failed to challenge corporate power in any meaningful way. This despite the fact that it was becoming increasingly clear that confronting corporate power and changing corporate behavior must be at the top of the international agenda. By 1992 evidence had emerged that found global corporations at the root of most global environment and development problems. A U.N. Centre on Transnational Corporations report documented that transnational corporations generated more than half of the greenhouse gasses emitted by the industrial sectors with the greatest impact on global warming.

Transnational companies also controlled 80 percent of the land worldwide cultivated for export crops and dominated production of almost all major toxic chemicals. At the time, just twenty companies controlled 90 per cent of pesticide sales. Global fishery corporations roamed the seas, their high-tech, large-scale factory fleets making a hefty contribution to a growing crisis in which 70 percent of the world's conventional fish stocks were either fully exploited, severely overtaxed, declining or recovering.

And while a number of factors contributed to the rapid deforestation of both tropical and temperate zones, timber transnationals played a major role as commercial timber harvests increased by 50 percent between 1965 and 1990.

These companies have always argued that they merely are serving government and consumer needs. It is true that governments and consumers are complicit in the irresponsible consumption of fossil fuels and other environmentally damaging goods. Yet global corporations are not mere observers. They are both producers and consumers of these products. They choose which technologies and products to develop and they use their political power to prevent technological transformation and to protect their industries economically. They influence and even buy scientific and public opinion through marketing and public relations. Notwithstanding the role of the individual consumer and small businesses, global corporations are at the very heart of the unsustainable practices that shape our economies.

Yet Governments in Rio allowed big business to avoid a binding legal framework on corporate activities, opting instead for a voluntary approach to sustainable development. Some of the world's worst corporate polluters were given special access to the Earth Summit process, establishing a trend of U.N.-corporate collaboration that has only grown since that time. In Rio, Greenpeace International, Third World Network and a number of allied organizations warned that business's heavy influence on the Summit would lead to the "partial privatization of the United Nations," and the "globalization of greenwash." Unfortunately, that prediction may have been right.

A Pro-Big Business Role for the U.N.?

In the decade between the two Earth Summits, the United Nations has not increased its dedication not to reining in socially, environmentally and economically destructive and unaccountable corporate power on the world stage. The U.N. has instead dedicated itself to building partnerships with global corporations and advocating corporate responsibility -- that is self-regulation -- as a solution. This entanglement between the U.N. and corporations occurred at a time when the corporate role in environmental destruction became increasingly clear and, augmented by globalization, arguably more profound than it was in 1992.

In 1999, for instance, major U.S. environmental groups calculated that just 122 corporations accounted for 80% of all carbon dioxide emissions, and just five petroleum companies produce oil that contributes some 10 percent of world carbon emissions. By the year 2002, the merger of Chevron and Texaco reduced that number to just four oil companies-three of whom were U.N. partners.

Nevertheless, the U.N. is still the only global institution that is a potential counterbalance to the World Trade Organization and the corporate-globalization regime. Its vision reflects the aspirations of many, placing fundamental values like human rights, labor rights and the environment before corporate profits. In practice, elements of the U.N. still help hold corporations accountable. This is especially true in the case of a series of international environmental treaties, two of which, the Climate and Biodiversity Conventions, emerged from the Rio Earth Summit.

Corporate Globalization Since Rio

The decade between the two Earth Summits has been disastrous for the twin causes of environmentally sustainable and socially just development. When seen in the context of world events in the 1990s and the beginning of this century, the Earth Summit process is, despite the hype, a mere historical footnote to the dominant trend of corporate globalization.Prior to the first Earth Summit, there was much hopeful and idealistic talk about building a post-Cold War world that fostered ecological sustainability, human development and democratic governance. Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War did not usher in the dawn of the green era for which many in Rio wished and worked. Rather, it marked the onset of a globalization process in which transnational corporations worked closely with the world's most powerful nations to put in place an international system of governance that values commercialism, corporate rights and "free" trade above environment, human rights, worker rights, human health and justice.

The post-Rio decade will go down in history as a time in which this new form of global governance, based on the interests of global capitalism, was institutionalized. This new architecture is embodied by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which came into force in 1994, and by the advent of the World Trade Organization (WTO), established in 1995 out of the Uruguay Round Negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Whereas the Rio agreements were meant to protect nature, the WTO and NAFTA rules give transnational corporations favored access to natural resources, while weakening the ability of governments to protect these resources or to legislate in favor of recycling, marine mammal protection and clean air.

Both the NAFTA and GATT negotiations were well under way during the Earth Summit negotiations in 1991 and 1992. Those negotiations cast a shadow in Rio, as U.S. and European governments, responding to a major lobbying effort by the International Chamber of Commerce, took great care to ensure that Agenda 21 and other documents were made consistent with these free trade accords' new rules and that the Earth Summit documents were rendered toothless. The Earth Summit and its vision of sustainable and equitable development were not to become a countervailing force to the new, extremely powerful, fully enforceable free trade regimes.

Since then, the WTO has used its enforcement powers of economic sanctions and its anti-democratic secret dispute resolution process to subordinate environment, labor rights and human rights to the newfound "rights" of corporations to trade and invest freely around the world. As a result, the WTO has marginalized the much weaker environmental agreements forged in Rio and dissipated the energy the Earth Summit inspired. The overwhelming momentum of corporate globalization and the power of the free-trade regimes have also made it extremely difficult for participants at Earth Summit II to revive the sense of hope and optimism present ten years earlier.

To a significant degree, the macro-political story of the 1990s is summed up by the phrase "Marrakech trumped Rio." (Marrakech was the site of the meeting that concluded the Uruguay Round of GATT and established the WTO.) In other words, the U.N. was sidelined, as the WTO became the most powerful intergovernmental institution in the world. The rise of the one-dollar-one-vote institution over the one-country-one-vote body mirrored and reinforced a rise in the power of the U.S. in the post-Cold War era, a time when U.S. contempt for the U.N. was still at an all-time high.

The Color of Money: Global Environmental Politics Since Rio

The fundamental need to radically change production and consumption patterns and practices in the North-a concept central to the Rio Earth Summit negotiations-has been all but ignored for the past decade. For instance, instead of reducing consumption in the United States, whose 4 percent of the global population gobbles up a whopping 25 percent of the planet's resources, auto corporations built more sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which pump ever-greater amounts of global warming gasses into the atmosphere.

At the same time, many of these corporations hypocritically touted themselves as "green citizens" in their public relations and advertising campaigns. Environmental good news became fashionable, and these companies were attempting to bring us the good news message so ardently wished for by the entire planet. Unfortunately, believing the good news simply was not warranted. There are some steps forward, but at the global level, they are far outnumbered by steps backward.

Being the bearer of bad news is an occupational hazard for environmentalists, and it is a role that is easy for the public to tire of. Nevertheless, it is a fact that in the decade between Earth Summits I and II, environmental destruction in much of the world accelerated. Forests dwindled, fisheries declined, and deserts encroached on ever more agricultural land. Potentially hazardous genetic pollution from biotech agriculture contaminated food crops, and clean, fresh water became increasingly scarce. With the 1990s becoming the warmest decade on record, the threat of global climate change loomed ever larger on the horizon, pointing toward a future of sea-level rises and the devastation of entire coastal populations, increasingly severe and frequent storms, environmental refugees, droughts, floods and disease.

The United Nations Environment Programme (U.N.EP) confirms that the "state of the planet is getting worse." The agency also pins at least some of the responsibility on business, saying "there is a growing gap between the efforts of business and industry to reduce their impact on the environment and the worsening state of the planet."

The ten years between the two Earth Summits have also shown that, despite their eco-rhetoric, for most corporations in the world green is nothing more than the color of money. Greenwash-the phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty-has become standard operating procedure for most corporations riding on the globalization bandwagon.

Greenwash is everywhere. It's most visible when comparing the reality of a corporation's environmental record with the rhetoric and eco-images in its advertising campaign, but it's also significant in the realm of international politics. Many corporations that are architects of ecologically and socially destructive globalization accords (like the WTO) claim to be advocates of sustainable development. They claimed this first in Earth Summit I and again ten years later, at Earth Summit II.

Enron and the Earth Summit

When one considers the evidence -- that many corporations which tout their social and environmental responsibility, continue to expand and develop core businesses that are at the root of the environmental problems the Earth Summit processes set out to curb -- it becomes obvious that something beyond voluntary measures is necessary.

Likewise, when one considers that in the ten years since Rio, transnational corporations have also successfully resisted most environmental challenges, maintaining unsustainable practices in the energy, chemicals, agriculture, extractive, technology and transportation sectors, it becomes imperative that strong accountability measures be developed.

Finally, when one considers the Enron debacle and all its consequences (as well as subsequent corporate scandals), it becomes patently obvious that something is terribly wrong with the self-regulatory route.

One of the central lessons of the Enron scandal is that when left to their own devices, at least some corporations will gravitate toward irresponsible behavior. Enron took advantage of the deregulatory dynamic of globalization to push for a variety of domestic and international arrangements that suited its own bottom line in the short term. As a result, the company ultimately collapsed, affecting millions of employees, investors and consumers around the world.

When seen in the light of the Enron experience, the cutting edge of corporate environmentalism at the first Earth Summit-voluntary adherence to principles and self-regulation-now sounds much more like mealy-mouthed rhetoric. The Enron experience makes it clear that the idea of corporations self-policing is patently absurd-be they Enron, Chevron-Texaco, Nike, Rio Tinto or Novartis. In light of the Enron debacle, a major effort to request that hundreds of companies support nine principles seems a distraction. The U.N. must be a leading advocate for fundamental reform of the global economy by building mechanisms for corporate accountability. The Seattle Movement.

The Johannesburg Earth Summit coincided with trends such as ongoing corporate globalization, environmental deterioration, deepening poverty and growing U.N. engagement with the private sector. A key question, then, is becoming obvious: Can the United Nations address the root causes of the world's growing environmental problems, thereby necessarily confronting the practices of global corporations, while simultaneously seeking to increase U.N. cooperation with these very companies?

In many respects, the worldwide movement challenging corporate-driven globalization has answered this question with a resounding "No!" Gathering steam throughout the 1990s, this broad-based international social movement emerged forcefully in Seattle, in 1999, when 50,000 people took to the streets to mostly nonviolent demonstrations at the WTO ministerial meeting. The Seattle movement was followed by mass protests in Prague, Washington, D.C., Quebec, Chiang Mai, Davos, Porto Alegre and Genoa and elsewhere.

The message rang clear: "Free trade" and globalization, as embodied by the WTO, NAFTA, World Bank and IMF policies and corporate investment practices, undermine democracy, local economies, ecological sustainability, human rights and labor rights. The voice and message of this movement, which has increasingly been echoed by more mainstream critics of the global economy, finds itself diametrically opposed to the corporate-inspired Earth Summit mantra that open markets are a prerequisite for sustainable development. Instead, it has begun to develop an alternative vision-one that is inspired by the slogan "another world is possible."

Part of this vision is for the U.N. to alter its approach toward transnational corporations. Instead of promoting a voluntary, corporate-responsibility model, this new movement advocates that the U.N. become home to a binding legal framework on corporate behavior. Such a framework would hold corporations accountable across the globe. In this way, the U.N. could begin to fulfill its potential to serve as a counterbalance to corporate globalization. It could more effectively promote environmental, labor and human rights. It could help build true global security.

If the U.N. is to achieve this, then large political realities must be overcome, including the reluctance of the U.N.'s most powerful member states. The challenge, already great, will become impossible unless the entanglement between the U.N. and global corporations is reversed.

*Kenny Bruno is Coordinator of the Corporate-Free UN Campaign and co-author of "Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism."

*CorpWatch Executive Director, Joshua Karliner, is author of "The Corporate Planet."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.