Global Policy Forum

UN Special Session on the Environment - June 1997 - An Analysis



Five years ago, thousands gathered in Rio de Janeiro to participate in the creation of an elaborate programming tool that could set the planet on a new course towards sustainable development. After two years of preparations and two weeks of non-stop negotiations at Rio, the UN Conference on Environment and Development adopted Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Statement on Forest Principles. Two conventions were also opened for signature: the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity. All in all, the Earth Summit was considered to be "a great success." While not everyone was satisfied with the results, Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration have served as a blueprint - "the Bible" - for sustainable development for the last five years.

Since Rio, many of the individual players and the venues have changed, but the problems remain the same. The major outstanding issues upon arrival in Rio were atmosphere, biotechnology, institutions, legal instruments, finance, technology transfer, freshwater resources and forests. Other areas where agreement proved elusive until the sun rose on the last day of the Summit were the need for a deser tification convention, the question of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, changing consumption and production patterns, and trade and environment, among others.

The issues that proved most difficult to resolve in 1992 are still problematic today. Questions related to the provision of financial resources and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries have haunted conferences from Barbados to Cairo, from desertification negotiations in Paris to climate change negotiations in Berlin and biodiversity negotiations in Buenos Aires. Forests have been the subject of four meetings of the CSD's Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF), yet heading into UNGASS there was no agreement on how to proceed. Setting targets and timetables for greenhouse gas emissions reductions proved impossible during the negotiations that resulted in the FCCC and are the subject of current negotiations expected to culminate in Kyoto in December. Regulating biotechnology safety almost derailed the biodiversity negotiations in 1992 and is now the subject of negotiations under the Biodiversity Convention. So is this "deja vu all over again," or has the international community actually made progress over the past five years?

In some areas, the international community has taken small steps forward. The Convention to Combat Desertification has entered into force. There are now agreements on land-based sources of marine pollution and straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. negotiations on a prior informed consent mechanism for hazardous chemicals are underway, and negotiations on persistent organic pollutants convention will begin next year. Governments are now actually discussing indicators for sustainable development, reproductive health care and production and consumption patterns -- topics that were practically taboo five years ago. And the list goes on. However, there are a number of issues where agreement continues to be elusive and the debates of today bear a striking resemblance to the debates at Rio.

Finance: The issue of how to finance sustainable development certainly is as big today as it was five years ago. Yet rather than trying to forge ahead, delegates appear to be falling back on Agenda 21 language. One observer pointed out that Agenda 21 should be the basis for discussion rather than "the Bible," and there should be a readiness to move on, especially since Agenda 21 was written in a different political and economic environment. For example, negotiators in New York did not address the big issue of economic globalization, which is not part of Agenda 21. The private sector has become the major agent of change even as negotiators at UNGASS are still tied down in discussions heavily focused on ODA. Many G-77 participants take the attitude that ODA trends are a benchmark to measure the success or failure of the Special Session - and Agenda 21 implementation. For their part, the Northern delegations did not come to UNGASS prepared to acknowledge concerns relating to private capital flows, including how to harness their potential for good, institutional challenges, and the UN's capacity to monitor and assess the rapid changes occurring in countries with la rge private sector-led growth. The result is a politically frozen debate while the real world changes daily. Realistically, Agenda 21's approach to finance needs to be expanded to embrace globalization and issues like the relationship between trade and environment, corporate responsibility, monitoring corporate activities, and identifying issues that private sector growth will never solve.

The question of innovative financial mechanisms for sustainable development also appears to be moving slowly. A large number of intergovernmental and non-governmental symposia, workshops and working groups on innovative mechanisms have been held over the past five years and numerous proposals have surfaced. One such proposal that made headlines at UNGASS was the international tax on airline fuel. At the beginning of the Special Session, some NGOs suggested that acceptance of the EU proposal for an international tax on airline fuel would be one of the most important indicators of political will for innovative action on sustainable development. One estimate is that such an initiative could raise upwards of $2-3 billion. The EU rationale was primarily to use the tax to he lp establish a link in the public mind between transport options and sustainable development, notably environmental protection. In the end, governments took a conservative approach and the EU had to settle for a text calling for the continuation of studies in the appropriate fora, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, on the use of economic instruments for the mitigation of the negative environmental impact of aviation. A reference to aviation fuel tax was relegated to a footnote. The EU, however, is studying the possibility of implementing such a tax within its own borders.

Climate Change: The desire to open the Climate Change Convention for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio gave governments the political will to push the negotiations to a bittersweet closure in 1992. Likewise, some governments and NGOs had hoped to use the "Earth Summit +5" to raise the political profile of the current negotiations to strengthen the Convention and push industrialized countries to commit to specific targets and timetables for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. UNGASS was not mandated to determine the outcome of COP-3, but given the level of attention in high-level statements, the fervor of informal discussions and the unmoving positions, delegates appeared keenly aware that the world was watching, closely. Observers offered a host of comments, ranging from dismay to complacency as no remarkable changes in position emerged. The EU and AOSIS sought specific references to their proposed reduction targets and timetables. The US emphasized emissions budgets, the participation of all countries and, with frequent support from Australia, the need for flexibility in implementation. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela insisted on taking into account the economic effe

Some FCCC denizens were surprised that Japan, not the most outspoken of delegations, appeared to be blocking consensus on a strong statement. Others argued that in reality there was no consensus to block and Japan, ever conscious of its host status, seemed determined to ensure that UNGASS did not prejudice the outcome of COP-3 and invite disaster in Kyoto come December.

Forests: The consensus reached to establish an intergovernmental forum on forests was described by some participants as the "only positive outcome" of UNGASS. That a concrete decision was taken on forests is the result of the fact that, unlike for other issues such as climate change or desertification, the Special Session constituted the main forum for multilateral decision making in this area.

Forests were the subject of some of the most acrimonious negotiations during the UNCED process. Heading into Rio, some felt that the Statement of Forest Principles was in such a state of disarray with 73 separate pairs of brackets that no agreement would be adopted. After an all-night session in Rio, consensus was achieved, yet all parties involved left the Earth Summit deeply dissatisfied. In spite of agreement on language, the North-South dialogue on forests had suffered a potentially reparable blow.

The first few years of post-Rio forest discussions were highly fragmented, with governmental, international organization and NGO forest-related initiatives proliferating with little coordination. Establishment of the IPF under the CSD in 1995 served to bring order to the chaos, institutionally as well as conceptually, by concentrating multilateral discussion of a range of forest issues within one forum. With the conclusion of the IPF, which generated reams of background information and over 100 recommendations for action, the question dominating debate at UNGASS was: where to go from here? While the "convention question" remained as intractable as ever, the forest debate was conducted in a much less hostile environment here than was the case at Rio.

There was, first and foremost, a shared sense of relief when a consensus decision to set up the Forum was reached, although views on the substantive content of this decision, and its consequences for the sustainable management of forests, remained deeply divided. Some in support of initiating a negotiation process right away expressed almost bitter disappointment that an opportunity to send a clear signal to the world, and to commit to legally-binding actions on sustainable management and use of forests, had been missed. Those not ready to discuss legally-binding commitments emphasized that there was no conceptual clarity regarding what a convention might contain, and that even those in support of a convention had different views on the subject. Instead, it was noted that the IPF had only begun to discuss extremely complex issues, and that the learning process needed to continue.The outcome for sustainable forest management hangs in the balance, dependent upon whether the Forum indeed galvanizes implementation of IPF recommendations, or proves to be another three-year talk- shop that rehashes debates older than Rio.

Political Statement: In the preparatory process for Rio, the "Earth Charter" was supposed to be the main political statement to emerge from the Earth Summit. Negotiations on the Earth Charter fell apart at PrepCom IV when the Chair of Working Group III introduced a draft text tooearly in the process, before delegates had sufficiently expressed their positions. In the end, PrepCom Chair Tommy Koh salvaged the process with extensive consultations and, occasionally, less than diplomatic behavior. The result was the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

In the preparatory process for UNGASS, however, the political statement was not so fortunate. The statement, in effect, died at UNGASS when a number of Ministers requested GA President Razali Ismail to halt the proceedings chaired by COW Chair Mostafa Tolba. The dilemma created by the preparation of the political statement was captured by one participant close to the Secretariat when he observed that if the statement was to be merely a summary of positions agreed to in the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, it would be superfluous. If it was to be a summary of the text that went beyond the language in the main Programme it was always going to be difficult to bring everyone on board. Some agreed that there were other factors that contributed to the demise of the political statement, including the way in which Tolba and Vice-Chair Monika Linn-Locher conducted initial consultations and responded to serious questions of procedure at the end of CSD-5.

Tolba's role was identified as a contributing factor to the collapse of the negotiations on the political statement - although ultimately the lack of agreement derailed the process. One participant said that many of Tolba's actions were viewed with mistrust from the outset, especially by some within the G-77. Questions of ownership and timing of the negotiations on the political statement also in fluenced the collapse. Perhaps had Tolba allowed time for delegates to formally state their initial positions on the political statement at CSD-5, before he and Linn-Locher submitted the first draft, then delegates would have felt a greater sense of ownership of the document. Even though Tolba held consultations on the political statement at CSD-5 and during the intersessional period, delegates did not have the opportunity to formally comment on anything until the negotiations during the week prior to UNGASS. By then it was too late. In contrast, countries who share the French language successfully concluded their own ministerial declaration. Observers praised its focus, content and brevity. There are notable references to the need for conclusive role for women at all levels of decision-making and on the innovative contribution of NGOs and local implementation sustainable development.

Role of Major Groups: From the institutional point of view, there is one area where there has been great progress since Rio. During the UNCED preparatory process and in Rio, NGOs had limited access to delegates and the negotiations. UNCED PrepCom IV was characterized by the placement of UN security officers at every conference room door with instructions to keep NGOs out of informal consultations. Through the work of the CSD and the other conferences held since 1992, NGOs have made great strides in achieving access to and influence on the proceedings. UNGASS marked a major milestone. For the first time NGOs and other Major Groups stood side by side with Heads of State and Government to deliver speeches to a Special Session of the General Assembly and were also allowed into ministerial-level consultations.

The extraordinary skills and quaint humor of UNED-UK chief, Derek Osborn, a former civil servant and current NGO representative, spoke volumes about the contribution of NGOs. Delegates paid tribute to Mr. Osborn's skillful handling of the negotiations on many of the difficult issues in the working group on sectoral issues. The profile and energy behind some of the most practical and salient proposals - on a finance panel and an international tax on air fuel - were also due to NGO activity.

The key role of NGOs was acknowledged in a meeting between NGOs and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Responding to the strength of his commitments on climate change as outlined in a speech Monday, Blair responded, "that was the easy part. Now you guys will have to get in behind us." This need to bring NGOs on board to keep up the pressure and help mobilize the public in readiness for far-reaching policy on climate change was also echoed in US President Bill Clinton's speech, with his announcement of a White House Conference and stated belief that "we must first convince the American people and the Congress that the climate change problem is real and immense."

Where do we go from here? As the 19th Special Session came to a close, many delegates and observers were asking each other if the meeting had been a success. Perhaps General Assembly President Razali Ismail captured the truth of the second "Earth Summit" in his closing speech to the Plenary. He turned the collapse of delegates' efforts to prepare a media-friendly "Political Statement" for Heads of State into the message itself: this was not a time to paper over the cracks in the celebrated "global partnership" for sustainable development and pretend that things are better than they are. This was a time for sober assessment, honest acknowledgement that "progress to operationalize sustainable development remains insufficient," and acknowledgement of the enormous difficulties of overcoming short-term and vested interests that would enable concrete commitments to specific targets and global programmes. As Amb. Razali commented, such an honest appraisal was a result in itself and was perhaps the key outcome of the Special Session: the "lofty expectations" launched in Rio collided with the street-wise realpolitik of New York diplomacy at UN Headquarters.

Nevertheless, UNGASS did raise the political profile of sustainable development and the work of the Commission on Sustainable Development to levels not seen since 1993. Now the real challenge is for governments and NGOs alike to capitalize on this exposure and try to advance new initiatives at the international, national and local levels. The one area where there was immediate consensus was that m uch more still needs to be done to make sustainable development the "business as usual."




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