Rio Earth Summit - 10 Years After
By Thalif Deen *
The overriding question confronting officials and activists alike as they prepare for the environmental summit next year in South Africa is: How effective have the conventions adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit been?
UNITED NATIONS - The world is preparing to evaluate that state of the global environment one decade after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which outlined a positive global vision for a sustainable future.
But in the run-up to the 2002 summit, known as "Rio + 10," governments and non-governmental organizations alike are asking the same question: How far have the three international conventions established in Rio gone toward protecting and preserving the global environment?
In addition to Agenda 21, a global action plan aimed at integrating environment and development in a 21st century world economy, the Earth Summit adopted three legally binding conventions: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification.
Despite these treaties, global warming continues to remain a major environmental threat, biological resources are increasingly becoming extinct, and drought and desertification are threatening the lives of over 1.2 billion people worldwide.
In a report last March, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented an assessment of the current conditions of global diversity.
"Despite the continued efforts of the international community, widespread biodiversity losses continue to occur and thus the status of biodiversity, in terms of species, habitats and ecosystems, has not significantly improved in most countries," he warned.
The Convention on Biological Diversity has emerged as the principal instrument for the achievement of the objectives of sustainable conservation and use of biological resources, as stipulated in chapter 15 of Agenda 21.
During the last nine years, there have been several spin-offs from the Convention on Biological Diversity: the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance and the Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
Nevertheless, Annan has said that most countries have experienced major constraints owing to lack of national capacities resulting from a lack of adequate "new and additional financial resources" which were pledged at the Rio Summit.
In the area of biodiversity, "the global extinction crisis remains among the highest priorities for the global community in the decades to come," Annan said.
According to the "Red List of Threatened Species," drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources-World Conservation Union (IUCN), 11,046 are in danger of extinction throughout the world, and 816 have already disappeared.
Meanwhile, a major assessment of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which entered into force in 1996, is scheduled to take place in Geneva in early October.
Hama Arba Diallo, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, is optimistic that the global dimension of desertification is being recognized since both drought and desertification continue to threaten the livelihoods of over a billion people worldwide out of a total global population of six billion.
"We have heard many positive statements… but what we are now looking forward to is seeing goodwill translate into concrete action," says Diallo, indicating that the full implementation of the convention has been held back by lack of funds.
The call for increased resources goes back to October 1994 when the formal signing of the convention took place in Paris. Following the adoption of the convention in 1996, Algeria's then Minister of Equipment Cherif Rahmani warned that "a convention without adequate financial means and without real commitment is irreversibly condemned to failure. Past experiences have proven so."
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the earth is losing more than seven million hectares of cultivable land a year due to soil degradation. According to FAO, desertification is the symptom of poverty, underdevelopment and food insecurity. And the three main causes are over-grazing, destructive agricultural practices and deforestation.
Perhaps the most significant of the three conventions to come out of the Rio summit was the Framework Convention on Climate Change, but is has suffered its biggest setback following an announcement by the new United States administration that it will neither ratify nor be a participant of the convention whose operational protocols were adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997.
The 133-member Group of 77, the largest single coalition of developing nations, has sharply criticized the US decision. "To be frank, it is a sad and disappointing message from the new Republican Administration in Washington to the international community," said Ambassador Bagher Asadi of Iran, chairman of the Group of 77.
Asadi was especially critical of the US for taking a unilateral decision on a treaty that was mutually agreed at an international gathering.
The Kyoto Protocol on global warming marked the first time the world's industrial nations committed themselves to binding limits on greenhouse gases that threaten to bring about catastrophic changes in the global climate.
Asadi stressed that the Kyoto Protocol is a valid international instrument - and it is not negotiable.
The United States, which represents only four percent of the global population of six billion people, releases at least 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. Under the Protocol, the United States would have to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants by 7.0 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
US President George W. Bush said in March that if given an option, he would protect the country's economy against the environment.
The ruling Republican Party, which has received millions of dollars in campaign contributions during presidential and congressional elections from oil and energy industries, is determined to support big business in its battle against the environment.
The Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) of the Climate Change Convention met in the Netherlands last November, but delegates were unable to reach agreement on how best to put the Protocol in operation. A follow-up meeting is scheduled to take place in Bonn this July.
The Nairobi-based UN Environment Program (UNEP) warned in February that the losses linked with climate change could cost the world over 300 billion dollars annually unless urgent efforts are made to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked with the "greenhouse effect."
At the upcoming summit in South Africa, said Annan, world leaders will have an opportunity to show that they take the idea of environmental stewardship seriously. "But they need not wait until then: indeed they must not. Our immediate test of resolve is the Kyoto Protocol."
* Thalif Deen is an IPS correspondent.