Business as Usual

By Barker, Debi | Tikkun, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

Business as Usual


Barker, Debi, Tikkun


A Decade After the First Earth Summit, There is Little to Celebrate

This year marks the tenth anniversary of what popularly became known as the Rio Earth Summit, an event hosted in 1992 by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at which governments worldwide acknowledged that the health of the planet was in peril and pledged to work together to save it. At that time, industrial nations committed to assisting developing countries with financial aid and "green" technology transfers and scheduled negotiations for new international treaties that would address climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, the rapid loss of plant diversity, and other pressing issues that needed international cooperation if there was to be any hope of maintaining the ecosystems of the world.

As the UN convenes this August in Johannesburg, South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), world leaders will have little to celebrate as they review the progress that has been made since the Rio meeting. Two key multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) negotiated after Rio-the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)have been continual sources of conflict and the United States still has not signed either agreement. Pledges of technical assistance and financial aid to developing countries have been left unfulfilled-in fact, aid to non-industrial countries by the wealthiest nations on earth actually decreased in the last ten years, with the United States being the worst offender.

By every measure and according to scientists around the globe, the environmental health of the natural world has continued to rapidly deteriorate in the last decade. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, since the Rio Earth Summit, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have increased 11 percent; the European Union and Japan have exceeded 1990 levels by 6 percent; and rapidly industrializing nations, such as China, Brazil, and Indonesia, have seen their emissions soar 20 to 40 percent above 1990 levels. In the first five years since Rio, it is estimated that more than 100,000 plant and animal species were lost, according to the World Conservation Union. Global forest loss has increased annually by a net area of 11.3 million hectares, roughly the size of the state of Louisiana. Since 1990, 4 percent of tropical forests have been lost.

What happened since the Rio Earth Summit? And, what are world leaders preparing to do in response to this dismal environmental record?

Some UN officials and world policymakers have cited governments' lack of "political will" to enact their pledges as the main reason for the failure of Rio products and agreements. However, this dangerously ignores and does not address the major reason why the earth is not in balance-- economic globalization.

While major environmental accords have been left hanging, trade ministers have ratified and implemented powerful international trade and investment agreements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) which have accelerated natural resource exploitation and reduced governments' abilities to protect the environment. Institutions such as the WTO have strong enforcement measures to ensure that governments comply with trade rules at the expense of environmental standards. For example, the WTO's dispute settlement body, a legally binding body that rules in closed-door international courts on trade issues, has issued several rulings that have overturned a number of nations' environmental and health safety rules and regulations, including portions of the U.S. Clean Air Act and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) allows corporations to sue national governments when offending environmental laws could cause potential loss of profits. And, sections of the WTO directly conflict with policies of some MEAs. Thus, nations are forced to choose between two masters-rules of globalization or environmental stewardship. …

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