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Costs far exceed benefits

THE WORLD Summit on Sustainable Development concluded in Johannesburg two months ago, but the debate on how successful the event was continues. So divergent were the views expressed in the immediate aftermath you wonder if the speakers were at the same venue. But there was the lingering hope that some firm, substantial initiatives might emerge after the dust and the hype had settled. Unfortunately, that was a triumph of hope over reality.

Lined up to do battle were the non-governmental organisations, or pressure groups, each with a noble cause to espouse, and supported by the majority of developing countries. In opposition were the developed countries, supported by such organisations as OECD, the World Trade Organization and, mostly behind the scenes, international business groups. Some of the latter even attempted to sit in both camps.

One of the most brazen pieces of public-relations hype in justification for attendance at the summit, at least from one of the leading delegations, came from Margaret Beckett, head of the UK delegation and minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said: "The overall outcome of this Johannesburg summit is truly remarkable. We had to give it our best shot—to get the best deal we could—and we did. It's easy to make promises about the future: it's more difficult to take responsibility for the planet. Our descendants will look back on this summit and say we set out on a new path." 

In a spin

Beckett added: "Sustainable development is the greatest challenge of our times. Johannesburg shows emphatically that not only do we need global solutions to global problems, but that we can achieve them and that environment and development policy must be mutually reinforcing.

After a marathon ministerial negotiation we have effectively finalised the Programme of Implementation. This is a victory for everybody who wants to put sustainable development at the heart of everything we do." 

Even Kofi Annan, the normally upbeat secretary-general of the UN, had difficulty in putting such a positive spin on the outcome of the summit. He claimed: "The summit makes sustainable development a reality. It makes a real difference. What we need now is a collective mobilisation on a global scale." What he did not spell out was that he was expecting "collective mobilisation" on implementation of the programme set out in the first so-called Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

If anything, the Johannesburg summit was a significant retrograde step from Rio, with most target dates for implementation either pushed out by as much as 10-15 years or abandoned. With classical understatement, Annan added, "We didn't get everything we wanted, but we have made progress." 

Beckett had no problems with public relations. "As in all negotiations," she said, "we aimed high and we ended up with more than we might have expected. I have always said that this summit should be more than fine words; it should be about a concrete step-change. This summit has clearly achieved targets and action plans for sanitation, fish stocks, toxic chemicals, biodiversity and natural resources."

However, it is difficult to see where else that progress was made. It certainly was not in the area of renewable energy, one of the central platforms of the summit. Access to cheap, reliable, renewable energy was proposed as a key element in sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.

Beckett claimed the negotiations achieved "agreement on joint action to improve access to sustainable energy services for the two billion people who lack them; agreement on the urgent need to increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix; increased technological co-operation to fund support for developing countries; and agreement to phase out energy subsidies that inhibit sustainable development." No mention of having dropped the target date of 2015 for achievement of 15% of global energy to be produced from renewable sources.

That proposal was originally put forward in Rio, but so little has been done since that achievement of the target is "clearly impossible", said Robert Priddle, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). "The proportion of the world's energy supplied by new renewable forms of energy is about 2%.

The 15% target looks attainable only if the 13% of the world's energy that is produced by biomass is included." But the utilisation of biomass is being discouraged because its use is not managed sustainably, it damages the environment, is inefficient and causes health problems.

The scale of the problem is immense. The IEA estimates that "$2.1 trillion must be invested in power generation in developing countries alone in the next 30 years and that will do little more than keep pace with population growth." The sums of money committed during the summit for renewable energy projects, including the Euro100m ($97.4m) each committed by the UK and France over the next three years, were paltry.

The feeling around the summit was one of outrage when it became clear that the time-frame for renewables had been dropped. The European Union was accused of caving in to a perceived US-Opec alliance opposed to the setting of renewable energy targets. The US was blamed for every failing of the summit.

US takes the blame

The headline on the press release from Friends of the Earth International screamed: "US wrecks earth summit". The release went on to claim: "The Bush administration has been the single biggest obstacle to achieving progress at this summit" and added: "[The] US' refusal to agree to substantive agreements with timetables and targets is particularly egregious given the disproportionate share of global resources it consumes and environmental damage it does." 

The final implementation document was so feeble as to render it meaningless. That raises the question of the usefulness, and even the purpose, of the high-profile, high-cost preparatory meetings held, usually, in exotic locations, including, earlier this year, Bali. It also calls into question the usefulness and cost-effectiveness of summit meetings, even if they are only held every 10 years.

The size and cost of the security operation alone was mind-numbing. The UN did not release figures on costs, but security involved regular police and para-military security police from all over South Africa, some specialised army units, constant helicopter patrols, a large fleet of saloon cars, traffic police, private security firms and a significant number of UN security personnel. And those were only the visible elements of the operation. The UN picked up the bill for security.

National delegations had to pay their own costs, which is just as well. It is believed that 191 countries sent delegations. All delegations were dwarfed by that of Japan, with 413 accredited delegates. Other delegations varied in size from the 158 listed for the UK, including the prime minister, and the 147, including secretary of state Colin Powell, in the US delegation to the single representative from Uzbekistan, the two from Niue and three each from Cyprus and Kyrgyzstan.

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