Environmentalists Take Harsh Blow: U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development Accedes to U.S. Demands: No Timetables, No Targets on Weaning from Fossil Fuels. (World)

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Environmentalists Take Harsh Blow: U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development Accedes to U.S. Demands: No Timetables, No Targets on Weaning from Fossil Fuels. (World)


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


As the World Summit on Sustainable Development drew to a conclusion, environmentalists expressed disappointment after the European Union buckled to pressures by U.S. delegates on timetables to wean the world from greenhouse-producing fossil fuels.

After days of talk in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 26-Sept. 4, the final tug--and measure of summit success--seemed to come down to which of two visions of sustainable development the delegates would adopt.

One, out of the European Union, called for a weaning from fossil fuels and strict timetables; the other, out of the Bush administration, backed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Japan, downplayed the need for change and objected to all timetables and targets.

As pressure grew and summit delegates approached the final hours, Europe backed down. The alternative, they said, would have meant imperiling the entire summit.

Environmental and development groups were furious that what seemed an imminent deal to set firm targets and a timetable to encourage the spread of wind, solar and other renewable energies in developing countries suddenly was watered down in favor of fossil fuel energies.

Steve Sawyer, climate policy director of Greenpeace, told the British Guardian: "The Americans, Saudis and Japanese have got what they wanted.... It's worse than we could have imagined."

Through the 10-day gathering, environmentalists and many delegates vilified the Bush administration, as the United States took the brunt of world criticism for having abandoned the world community. The U.S. position on a range of global issues had a common denominator: The United States would accept no timetables or targets. It would offer no pledges. Whether the issue was water, sanitation, energy or pollution, the Bush team held firm, often finding allies in oil producing nations or among poor nations that said they could not afford renewable fuels.

The Bush delegation argued that it is willing to commit to practical, focused aid and development programs but cannot bind the American people to what it sees as vague, symbolic gestures.

Going into the summit, few environmentalists expected more from Washington. Yet the reality of Bush "unilateralism" and his nationalist focus, facing the urgency of the tasks and the sentiments of the wider communities, was nevertheless painful to swallow.

Kyoto in a `timely manner'

The Johannesburg summit of 2002 became an echo of Bush on Kyoto in March 2001. That's when the president rejected the 1997 environmental protocols that set legally binding emission reduction goals. The United States produces 25 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions. Bush said adoption of the Kyoto goals--seen as modest by environmentalists who give some predictions of a 6 degree global warming in this century--would hurt the U.S. economy.

In Johannesburg, the U.S. delegation received instructions to keep any mention of the Kyoto protocols from appearing in the final summit action plan, the heart of the final document. In this, however, the team did not succeed. With heavy lobbying from the Europeans, the final text refers to Kyoto and "strongly urges" nations that have yet to sign the protocols to do so in a "timely manner."

The final wording of the summit's key energy section not only avoided mention of timetables, but it included a call for the use of "fossil fuel technologies," although in the context of developing "cleaner, more efficient, affordable" energy sources. The wording was an especially harsh blow to environmentalists.

"We are bitterly angry that the OPEC countries, Japan and the United States have combined in this way to help wreck the world's environment and endanger the security of our common home," one environmental group stated just after the wording of the energy text was released. The feeling was widespread.

In the final hours, each head of state--more than 100 attended--was allowed five minutes to speak to the delegates. …

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