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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

World Summit on Sustainable Development

Air Date: Week of

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The World Summit on Sustainable Development is expected to draw more than 60,000 people to South Africa at the end of the month. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Jan Pronk, special UN envoy to the summit, about what to expect from the talks.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Ten years ago, Nelson Mandela was negotiating the end of apartheid in South Africa from his jail cell. George Bush was the 41st President of the United States. And he had to be persuaded to join the world’s leaders who were meeting in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the fate of the earth’s environment.

Today, Nelson Mandela is in the history books as the first black president of South Africa. And later this month, his protégé, Thabo Mbeki, will host an international summit on the environment in Johannesburg. More than 60,000 people are expected to attend what’s being billed as Rio+Ten.

But while some things have changed, much is still the same as it was a decade ago. George W. Bush is the 43rd President of the U.S. and, like his father, reluctant to join the 100 world leaders that the U.N. says have already committed to attend the earth summit. Alan Hecht is with the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

HECHT: There is no question that the administration knows the importance of this meeting and takes it seriously. And I think you’ll find there will be a good, strong delegation. But I just don’t know…that decision hasn’t been made as yet.

CURWOOD: Tepid interest in the U.S. is just one of many concerns of some around the world about the continuing pace of environmental degradation and widening economic disparities. The U.S. and Europe alike have been slow to keep the promises of financial support made at Rio. And rich or poor, very few nations have heeded the call to protect the environment that went out at the first of these environmental summits held in Stockholm in 1972. Nitin Desai is the United Nations Secretary-General of what is officially called The World Summit on Sustainable Development.

DESAI: Each of these events – the Stockholm meeting, the Rio conference and, these days, even the Johannesburg meeting – is often described as a wakeup call. And whenever people use that term, a wakeup call, I’m reminded of the alarm clock I have next to my bed which has a nice snooze alarm. So every time the alarm rings, I press the snooze thing, and go back to sleep.

But you know, the first time I can do that, and it stays quiet for 15 minutes. The second time I do that, it stays quiet for five minutes. But the third time I do, it doesn’t listen. And it keeps ringing til I get up, and start moving and acting.

So sometimes I say Stockholm was that first alarm, Rio was the second alarm, Johannesburg is your third alarm. And this time, you don’t have the option of pressing that snooze button. You’ve got to get up, get going, do something.

CURWOOD: The agenda for the Johannesburg summit calls for the world to address questions of water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity, among key issues of sustainable development. Parallel meetings by various activist groups will also focus attention on corporate responsibility and economic globalization.

Jan Pronk is the former Dutch minister of the environment and a special U.N. envoy for the World Summit. He achieved recognition last year as the chair of the final and successful round of negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. And he joins us now. Minister Pronk, critics say that in the past these summits have produced a lot of talk and little else. Why do you think this summit will be any different?

PRONK: Because the attention is not to talk on a text which might lead the international community to new promises and new ideas, new targets, but only to concentrate on action and the implementation. That is, closing the gap between words and action, between promises and deeds.

Some steps have been taken during the last ten years. It was not all negative. For instance, there was a climate treaty with the major exception of the United States not willing to participate in the treaty. But many other promises were totally unfulfilled. We promised more money for development. We got a dramatic decline in international development assistance.

So the problem of the 1990s was that we were concentrating on other issues, than on the issues which led us to promises ten years ago, which is creating frustration in many parts of the world.

CURWOOD: Minister Pronk, what has changed to think that now the world is in a mood to deliver on those promises?

PRONK: We see some progress in the political willingness of governments to go ahead. We did have, in the last couple of months, a number of international events. For instance, a conference on the future of international trade in Doha and the conference on international finance in Monterrey, which did lead to a bit more forthcoming steps being taken by a number of countries.

This does augur well for the Conference. But I would like to add it is not a conference on what the North, the rich countries, can do for the South, the poor countries. It is a conference also in the interest of people in northern countries themselves. We are deteriorating our own natural environment.

At the same time, we are leaving many people outside of the system. Quite a number in the world are feeling so alienated that they are becoming to be hostile against the system. Which means if we do not invest in sustainability, we will have more insecurity also threatening the welfare of the people in the North. There is a growing awareness of that specific self-interest of the world as a whole.

CURWOOD: Let’s look at one issue that’s bound to get a lot of attention at this meeting. And that’s energy. There’s talk that there could be agreement about setting a goal of renewable energy use on a global scale. But how would that work? How could that work, especially considering the issue that it costs a lot of money to set in place energy systems, money that poor nations do not have?

PRONK: Of course, it’s costly in the beginning for that reason. There are possibilities to use also international resource transfers for that purpose. As a matter of fact, in the framework of the climate convention, we have reached agreement to the extent that making it possible with the help of finance coming from the North to the South, the northern countries also, themselves, would benefit from this because then they could be credited by contributing to a lower output of greenhouse gases.

To that extent, we have, in a way, created an international market for renewability, which is good for the North and for the South and thus, cost-efficient.

CURWOOD: The United States doesn’t plan to participate in the Kyoto process and trading emissions. And in fact, within the United States, very little is being spent on renewable energy. How do you expect the world to go about building a large capacity in renewable energy without the participation of the United States?

PRONK: I foresee the following pattern. If Russia also would ratify the Kyoto Protocol, after the European Union countries and Japan have done that already, the Protocol will become operational soon. And then we have created a new market. Then there is a new political system; all countries, without the U.S., which is perhaps also felt as a threat by the U.S. Then there is a new legal system because then there is a treaty on this particular issue. And then there is a new economic system, a market.

That means that the U.S., at a certain moment, will come to the conclusion that it cannot afford to be excluded anymore. Also, in the interest of those companies in the United States, we would like to get access to that new market, market for new technologies in the field of energy, also a market crediting greenhouse gas emissions. And I foresee that that might be the case in, say, three to four years.

CURWOOD: The White House officially says it hasn’t decided whether or not Mr. Bush is going to South Africa. Privately, we hear from a number of folks that it seems highly unlikely. What type of impact do you think that would have on the talks?

PRONK: I would say the following. It was ten years ago when we did have the conference in Rio de Janeiro. Also felt highly unlikely that the then-President Bush would come. The conference took a turn to the extent that President Bush, at the time, felt that it was, indeed, necessary to be there. I would say this is also quite probable in Johannesburg.

And my message would be: President Bush, you cannot afford not to be in Johannesburg. Moreover, it is not a summit where the United States would try to do something good for other countries, a traditional North/South conference. It is a conference on the future of the earth and of its people, in the words of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and that includes also an American interest. The fate of the American people, the future American generations, is also at stake. And the future progress and the protection of the environment, which is so important for the American people, also will depend on international action. Be part of it.

CURWOOD: Jan Pronk is the special U.N. envoy to the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the former Dutch Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

PRONK: You’re welcome.


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United Nations Johannesburg Summit 2002


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