Global Policy Forum

Less Talk, More Action for Rio + 10


by Normita Thongtham

Bangkok Post
December 4, 2001

Does anyone remember Unced, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development -- better known as the Earth Summit-- held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992? Intended to address the environmental crisis facing humanity, it adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action which covered six core themes: Enhancement of the quality of life on earth; efficient use of the earth's resources; protection of global commons; management of human settlements; management of chemicals and waste; and promotion of sustainable economic growth.

To assess how Agenda 21 has been implemented -- as well as to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable development --a follow-up summit will be held in Johannesburg next September. Like UNCED, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) --"Rio +10'' for short-- is expected to attract tens of thousands of participants ranging from heads of state and top government officials to business leaders and NGO activists from a total of 179 countries.

To prepare for Rio +10, more than 400 government representatives and heads of 170 NGOs from the Asia-Pacific region gathered in Phnom Penh last Tuesday for a meeting which its organisers described as a "round table''. In fact, it was anything but a round table, literally or figuratively speaking. For one thing, the Grand Ballroom of the Inter-Continental Hotel, where the meeting was held, was so jammed with people that seating the participants face to face was next to impossible. Nor was it possible to create the illusion of equality among the delegates. NGO leaders who attended had no assurance that their views would be included on the agenda of a two-day meeting that followed immediately after the round table, for this "high-level'' gathering was restricted to ministers and government representatives.

Asia-Pacific, the world's most populous region, comprises 54 countries that are very different from each other, not only geographically and topographically but also in terms of their climatic and ecological conditions, socio-cultural frameworks, economies and political systems. Because of its vastness and diversity, the region has been divided into five subregions, namely, Central Asia, Northeast Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and South Pacific.

In promoting global sustainable development, the Asia-Pacific region has a central role. It is the largest and fastest growing region in the world; its population of 3.2 billion is more than half of the world's total. Most of the world's poor live in this region, where an estimated 900 million people earn less than 43 baht a day and more than 2 billion people, or a third of humanity, earn less than 85 baht a day.

In terms of ecology, the Asia-Pacific region is one of the most important repositories of biological diversity, ranging from the fragile island ecosystems of the South Pacific and the deltaic and coastal plains of South and Southeast Asia to the mountainous and landlocked countries of Central and Northeast Asia. The region is the most badly affected by soil degradation and salinisation, contributes the most sediment to the oceans, and uses the most water for agriculture. Air and water pollution levels in Asian cities are twice the world average.

Preparations for the Asia-Pacific platform for Rio +10 have been intense. They began in September last year with a ministerial conference in Kitakyushu, Japan. Each of the subregions held their own preparatory meetings and there have also been two regional round-table meetings -- one for East Asia and the Pacific and the other for Central and South Asia. The draft regional platform was drawn from reports taken at all these meetings, as well as the one held in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. This draft document was scrutinised and deliberated on by ministers at the two-day high-level meeting that followed. Once finalised, the platform will constitute the region's assessment of how well it has implemented Agenda 21, key policy issues and priorities for sustainable development, plus goals for the next decade.

Welcoming the delegates at Phnom Penh, Kim Hak-Su, executive secretary of Escap (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), recognised the important but unenviable task which the ministers had ahead of them. "In the Asia-Pacific region, we have made significant gains in our efforts towards sustainable development,'' he said. "In fact our region leads the world in tropical-forest plantation development and many areas have been declared as protected for biodiversity conservation. And there has been considerableprogress in increasing public awareness of environmental and sustainable development issues. ''But overall,'' he added, "the region's environment continues to deteriorate and we continue to have the largest population of the world's poor.''

In his keynote address, Cambodia's Minister of the Environment, Dr Mok Mareth, was more straightforward in his assessment. "The general inability of countries in the region to effectively arrest the deterioration of the coastal and marine environment, despite ongoing efforts at the national and global levels, is well recognised,'' he said. "Ten years after Rio, there is little evidence of attaining the sustainable-development goals.

''There is also inadequate commitment to resolving structural problems such as external debt, financial aid for development and environmental programmes, and green-technology transfer. Industrialised and developed countries must be sympathetic towards the needs of the much poorer developing countries. We therefore need to renew a dialogue between North and South, for a new global and clean environmental partnership...

''We must recognise the interconnectivity between environmental degradation and economic and social stresses, and respond with appropriate strategies, policies and actions. We need a functional collaborative framework for intergovernmental cooperation on transboundary issues and ... for promoting the relationships and linkages of national and local governments, UN agencies, international organisations, the private sector, NGOs, academia, communities and other members of civil society, and catalysing their roles in addressing national and local concerns.

''A new approach to regional environmental and natural-resource governance is seen as an essential item _ one that brings together the visions, mandates, skills and resources of local, national, regional and international stakeholders into a collaborative regional framework,'' Dr Mareth said.

According to Rene Karottki, an adviser to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs who attended the Phnom Penh meeting as an observer, one of the major challenges facing Rio +10 is to ensure that the government and private sectors and civil society are able to work together to attain sustainable development. Denmark, he said, has a special interest in developments in the Asia-Pacific region since it will be the president of the European Union while Rio +10 is underway in Johannesburg.

''It is a kind of special responsibility to work on behalf of all countries in the EU, which will give us a say in the discussions,'' he said. "But we cannot do it alone; we need alliances, in developed as well as developing countries ... to see whether we can forge a global deal.''

Denmark is one of the few countries which have not reneged on its promise at the Earth Summit to contribute at least one percent (it gives 1.2 percent) of its GNP to developing countries. For Rio +10, it has produced a "non-paper'' entitled "A Global Deal''; its purpose is to ensure a new balance among the different rates of economic, social and environmental development around the world. ''It's a 'non-paper' because it is not like a Danish position, nor an EU position, but serves as food for thought; it's open to discussion,'' Karottki said.

''This global deal will be an agreement among governments at the highest level. But in order to put it into practice you also need a close link with the private sector and civil society -- that is, the NGOs and the other groups who all have an important role to play in showing the way to creating and ensuring the right solutions, experimenting and getting new ideas, and influencing politicians and the private sector.''

Another challenge for Rio +10, Karottki said, is to promote the right kind of relationship between North and South. "Whatever was promised in Rio did not happen. On the contrary, ODA official development assistance has declined significantly since Rio, so the developed countries have not lived up to what they were supposed to do.''

The 1992 Earth Summit was supposed to address environmental and development issues, "but after Rio it became an environment agenda, and some of the other things were lost,'' Karottki added. Among the suggestions contained in "A Global Deal'' are: Giving developing countries better access to global markets; setting international standards for environment and labour matters; increasing development assistance with a view to reducing poverty; strengthening international cooperation on climatic and environmental issues; more effectively implementing multilateral environmental agreements; and improving the transfer of environmentally sustainable technologies. ''If the Johannesburg summit is to succeed,'' Karottki said, "it should integrate the three pillars of sustainable development _ economic, social and environmental.

''Johannesburg is interesting in that it aims to bring a lot of things together: Climate change, biological diversity, desertification, the World Trade Organisation on trade, financing for development, etc. In the past there's been a lot of talk, and talk and talk, but nothing really happened.

''The greatest challenge facing Johannesburg is to make things happen, to create a kind of momentum that will last for 10 or even 20 years.''



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