The Gray Planet
By Ignacio Ramonet
[This article originally published in: die tageszeitung, August 9, 2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.taz.de/pt/2002/08/09.nf/mondeTextI.artikel,a0004.idx,0.]
From August 26 to September 4, 2002, the world summit for sustainable development will meet in South African Johannesburg. 60,000 participants from over 180 countries are expected at the meeting and more heads of state and heads of government than at any international conference of the last ten years. The most urgent problems of humanity are on the agenda: environmental care, combating poverty and the rescue of our planet.
The earth deteriorates. The most important evils were already diagnoses ten years ago at the first environmental summit: the atmosphere is warming, drinking water is becoming scarce, enormous forest surfaces are destroyed, dozens of animal- and plant species are threatened with dying out and over a billion people live in extreme poverty.
In Rio, the heads of state admitted that "the main cause for the gradual destruction of the global environment is the unsustainable consumption- and production models - particularly in the industrial countries - which are reasons for serious concern and cause increasing poverty and imbalance." (Article 4, section 3 of Agenda 21). At that time, the Rio summit passed two important conventions on climate change and biodiversity and set the theme sustainable development on Agenda 21.
Development can be described as sustainable when future generations receive just as good environmental quality as their predecessors. Three principles must be observed: the cautionary principle according to the motto: Better prevent than repair, the principle of solidarity between the present and future generations and also within the whole world population that includes the involvement of all social actors in decision-making.
Ten years after the passing of Agenda 21, the situation has not improved in many areas. The "unsustainable consumption- and production models" have even intensified in the course of forced globalization. The income disparities have reached a degree unknown since the time of the Pharaohs. The assets of the three richest persons of the world surpass the value of the accumulated assets of the population of the poorest 48 countries. The pollution of the biosphere by the rich countries has increased. 20 percent of the world population living in the thirty most highly developed industrial countries produce and consume 85 percent of synthetic chemical products, 80 percent of non-renewable energy and 40 percent of available fresh water while blowing ten times as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere per capital than persons in developing countries (all numbers according to the publication "State of the World 2002").
Carbon dioxide emissions - the main cause of global warming - have risen 9 percent worldwide in the last ten years. The increase is 18 percent for the US, the greatest polluter. More than a billion persons still have no access to drinking water. Nearly three billion must manage with qualitatively inferior water. Polluted drinking water costs the lives of 30,000 persons daily, ten times more than the victims of the criminal assassinations of September 11, 2001.
The destruction of enormous forests continues uncontrolled. Year after year 17 billion hectares disappear, four times the area of Switzerland. The greenhouse effect heating up the climate intensifies since these trees can no longer contribute to absorbing excess carbon dioxide. Every year 6000 animal species die out every year. 13 percent of the birds, 25 percent of mammals and 34 percent of fish are threatened - a dying of animals that the earth has not experienced since the time of the dinosaurs.
All this explains the immense hopes tied to the summit of Johannesburg. However these hopes could be disappointed if national self-interests, productivist logic and the principles of commerce and profit gain the upper hand as happened in June 2002 at the preparatory conference in Bali. This preparatory conference broke down in the inability of the negotiating partners to agree on an action plan for sustainable development.
To save the planet, the powerful of this world must make at least the following seven resolutions in Johannesburg: First, an international program for preferential use of renewable sources of energy is necessary with the focal point in the Third World. Second, the supply and processing of water must be developed so far by 2015 that the number of people may be cut in half who for a long time have had no access to this vital resource, a common good of humanity. Third, we need measures to protect the forests as envisioned in the 1992 Rio agreement on biodiversity. Fourth, we need resolutions for a legal framework that codifies the environmental responsibility of businesses and declares the cautionary principle as the precondition for all commercial activity. Fifth, we need initiatives to subordinate the WTO rules to the UN principles for protection of the eco-systems and the norms of the International Labor Organization. Sixth, the industrial countries must commit to earmarking at least 0.7 percent of their gross national product for economic aid. Seventh, the summit should pass binding recommendations on debt cancellation for poor countries.
Through the destruction of the natural environment, people have made the earth increasingly uninhabitable. The summit of Johannesburg must try to drop the rudder to avert the threatening global environmental catastrophe. This is one of the great challenges of the 21st century in which humanity is threatened with ruin or extinction.