Delegations from 174 countries which are meeting for nine days to try to cure
the world's environment and development problems later this month will have to
do it without the help of Britain's environment minister, Michael Meacher.
The conference, seen by many as a talking shop and too unwieldy to produce
concrete results, takes place 10 years after the first Earth
Summit in Rio and is designed to assess progress and give new impetus to the
A staggering 65,000 people have registered to attend the conference in Johannesburg,
which will be turned into a fortress for nine days with 27,000 police enforcing
security. Every hotel room and boarding house and many holiday flats have been
taken over by the government to squeeze everyone in.
At least 10,000 of those attending will be government officials, and 6,000
will be journalists. Each head of government will be allotted 10 minutes to speak.
There are 20 UN bodies, each with their own delegation. A second parallel conference
attended by environment groups, big business, the landless poor, and hundreds
of lobby groups, from bird-watchers to the oil industry, has already attracted
15,000 registrations. Each of these groups will also send separate delegations
to lobby the main conference. It is so complex that no one is sure it will work,
still less achieve anything.
But the conference takes place against an alarming backdrop of famine in Southern
Africa, caused partly by climate change which is reducing rainfall, and the steady
destruction of the earth's natural resources, and lack of clean water and sanitation.
The failure to reach many of the UN's development targets and reduction in world
poverty by promoting development and education will be top of the agenda.
More than 100 heads of state will arrive in the last two days of the conference
to sign a declaration designed to set new targets on poverty and development aid.
Among the issues that Tony Blair will be pushing is the plight of two billion
people in the world who are without electricity, many in rural Africa.
The problem is that unlike Rio there are no great new conventions to be signed.
At the first summit the Climate Change Convention, designed to combat global warming,
and the Biodiversity Convention, to protect vulnerable species and protect the
natural world, were agreed and signed, giving high hopes of a brighter future.
In addition developing countries got together and set up an agreement to combat
the spread of the world's deserts. An attempt was made to get a forest convention,
but this proved impossible and despite years of subsequent talks failed to materialize.
Apart from those agreements, a vast document called Agenda 21, a blueprint
for the environment and development in the 21st century, was agreed and signed.
Every local authority was supposed to create a plan for sustainable development
under the slogan "think globally, act locally". Many in Britain have adopted Agenda
21 policies with varied success.
This time the agenda has changed. Big businesses, particularly multinationals,
are now charged with pouring money into developing countries and creating partnerships
with local people to aid development. The idea is to improve social, environment
and economic advancement all in one go, under the catch-all phrase of sustainable
development. This is really what the summit is supposed to be about, how to encourage
economic development of the poorest countries without further damaging their environment
and destroying yet more natural resources like forests. A phrase that will be
repeated again and again in Johannesburg will be "not leaving the earth for our
children in a worse state than we found it".
As at Rio the main problem will be seen as the role of the US. There have been
many preparatory meetings, but the US delegation, numbering more than 130, has
been accused by environment groups of obstructing any attempts to impose new targets
and timetables on relieving poverty and promoting development.
So little progress had been made after the "last" preparation meeting in Bali
in June that many feared that Johannesburg would be a complete failure. Another
meeting was hastily arranged for New York last month to try to pin down some concrete
Still undecided is whether George Bush will attend. The conference, which was
to have been in the first two weeks in September, was moved back to run from August
26 to September 4, to avoid the September 11 anniversary and allow the president
Like his father, who was US president during the Rio conference, Mr Bush is
less than enthusiastic about the environment and development aid. In 1992 George
Bush senior refused to sign the Biodiversity Convention in case it cost the US
money but he did go to Rio and endorsed the Climate Change Convention.
His son is even more antagonistic towards the environment, and although the
US remains part of the climate convention, the new president pulled out of the
subsequent Kyoto agreement which would have given the convention teeth.
The rest of the world has continued with Kyoto, a snub to the US, which is
now seen as an international environmental pariah, at least in the eyes of the
As at the Rio summit there will be a split between the northern developed countries
which regard Johannesburg as a vital step to safeguarding the environment as well
as promoting development, and the developing world, which looks on it as an opportunity
for more aid to promote industry and clean technology.
But in the 10 years since Rio the aims of development and environment groups
have got much closer. There has been a vast growth in the environment movement
in developing countries. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the industrial
revolution of Europe and the US where air pollution and toxic wastes wrecked large
areas. The developing countries want to leap from the 19th century to the 21st
without the mess in between.
To this end they find a sympathetic ear in Mr Blair, who wants to switch the
lights on in Africa using technologies like wind and solar power. This will have
the dual effect of allowing a leap forward in education using computers and other
technology, and at the same time prevent the further destruction of trees used
daily for fuel.
The other great issues are lack of clean water and sanitation, which cause
millions of deaths a year among children from avoidable diseases. Africa is particularly
prone to virulent forms of malaria, which is spreading to ever increasing areas
of the globe because of climate change.
Biodiversity and its continued destruction are again on the agenda and how
to keep the food supplies going for ever increasing human populations. The world's
population of 6 billion population will grow to 8 billion in less than 50 years.
With multinationals and environment groups sending delegations as large as
any government's, trade and globalization will be a simmering issue. Many see
the greater emphasis in Johannesburg on big business helping to solve the world's
problems as a further erosion of the power of governments, and a lack of political
will to make the summit a success.
On a global scale
· Proper name World Summit on Environment and Development
· Also billed as The world's largest ever conference
· Held in Johannesburg, South Africa, to review progress 10 years
after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Runs August 26
to September 4
· Second conference for environment, development and industry groups
· Total of 65,000 delegates
· Security is provided by 27,000 police.
· Currently 174 countries are represented
· 106 heads of government will attend, including Tony Blair
· British delegation cut from 100 to 70
· The BBC is expected to send a team of 100
· George Bush still undecided whether to attend.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002