Healing the earth? – United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – Environment

Healing the earth? – United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – Environment – 1992

Jon R. Luoma

THE UNITED NATIONS Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro last June was promoted as the greatest environmental diplomacy show on Earth, and it lived up to its billing. On the one hand, the Earth Summit sometimes degenerated into a three-ring political and media circus (with, for example, the Brazilian press characterizing President Bush as “Uncle Grubby”); on the other, the event did amount to the most important international attempt yet to heal the planet.

The extent to which the summit could be called a success falls into the category of the cup that’s perceived as half-full or half-empty. The centerpiece of the conference was to be the signing of two major treaties. One was to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming. The second was to protect biodiversity, meaning not only Earth’s totality of plants and animals but also the components of life at smaller scales, as in genetic diversity, and larger scales, as in ecosystems.

THE TWO TREATIES, negotiated in the months leading up to the summit, wound up falling far short of environmentalists’ expectations. At U.S. insistence, the global warming treaty was stripped of provisions that included firm targets and deadlines, and it became little more than a catalog of “guidelines” for reducing gas emissions. Worse, the United States was conspicuous for its outright refusal to sign the biodiversity treaty, despite the signatures of more than 150 other nations, ranging from Japan and Germany to Brazil and India.

Still, the Earth Summit and the treaties did break some new ground. Most notably, they focused on the great conundrum of global environmental issues: the rift between developed and developing nations, or, as the conference often characterized them, North (that is, hemisphere) and South. In cases of global problems like climate change or the threat to biodiversity, developing nations have always resented the prospect of having to suppress their own poor economies in ways that wealthy nations never had to.

The biodiversity treaty tried to close the North-South rift. Most of the millions of land-dwelling species on Earth lie in the developing nations, with as many as half living in the rain forests alone. With the bulk of future population growth expected to come in the South, enormous pressure will be put on already threatened rain forests and even “protected” areas, such as national parks. The biodiversity treaty included predictable mandates calling for nations to strive to protect species within their boundaries and to “establish a system of protected areas where special measures need to be taken to conserve biological diversity.” But the treaty went beyond that, calling for nations to become more vigorous in finding what species exist within their borders, and where biodiversity is most at risk. The treaty called for an emphasis on the protection of whole ecosystems rather than individual endangered species, and it emphasized the importance of trying to restore damaged rain forests, wetlands, and other threatened habitats.

SIGNIFICANTLY, the treaty also established the “sovereign rights” of nations to profit from protecting biodiversity by virtually allowing them to patent the stuff of the wild. To a poor nation in the species-rich tropics, the economic benefits from controlling access to its genetic resources could be substantial.

In theory at least, the prospect of royalties creates a powerful incentive for poorer nations to inventory and protect biodiversity. “The treaty moves us away from the idea of a global grab bag where anyone can snatch a genetic resource from anybody’s backyard and take the profits,” says Kenton Miller, the program director for biological resources at the World Resources Institute. “But it also says the sovereign nation must assure that those resources are used sustainably and put mechanisms into place so they can be shared.”

The United States objected to portions of the treaty encouraging “transfers of technology,” suggesting that the treaty as phrased could compel U.S. companies to transfer their biotechnology patents to other nations. One State Department official close to the negotiations said that most U.S. diplomats were “stunned” themselves at the Bush administration’s refusal to sign on such grounds, especially since the treaty did contain language specifically assuring the protection of “intellectual property rights.” The United States said the language was ambiguous. In the meantime, though, it has promised to abide generally by the terms of the treaty, suggesting that U.S. companies won’t be free to pilfer genetic material outside the nation’s borders. Many experts, however, believe the United States will eventually sign the treaty.

The North-South schism is, if anything, more pointed when it comes to global warming. Developing nations point out that the United Staes, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, is nevertheless responsible for 22 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. By contrast, India, with more than three times the U.S. population, produces only about 3 percent of global [CO.sub.2].

IN NEGOTIATIONS before the Rio conference, diplomats tried mightily to repeat the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty to control chlorofluorocarbons, which are responsible for depleting stratospheric ozone. The innovative ozone treaty gave developing nations relaxed timetables for phasing out CFCs and even allowed them to increase emissions temporarily; the Northern countries meanwhile were obliged to restrict emissions more quickly and to set up a fund to help developing nations pay for CFC control.

But only a few companies produce CFCs; other greenhouse gases are produced nearly anywhere combustion occurs, from a coal-fired power plant to a motor scooter. The Bush administration, already skeptical of concerns that global warming poses a real threat, worried about the effects sharp restrictions in the North could have on U.S. industry and hence on jobs and the economy. In the weeks leading up to the summit, Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland called for the North to set real targets, rolling emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. But the United States turned down any proposal for targets and deadlines and successfully fought off efforts to require the North to help the South with funding and technology transfer.

In the end the treaty became one of “constructive ambiguities,” said Jean Ripert, the French diplomat who chaired the negotiating committee. For example, rather than specifying how much emissions of greenhouse gases should be reduced, the treaty merely states that nations “shall adopt national policies and take corresponding measures” to limit emissions and that by the end of the decade emissions should be reduced to unspecified “earlier levels.” On a brighter note, the treaty created a Conference of the Parties, which could negotiate firm targets in coming months. The European Community has already announced that by the year 2000 it will roll emissions back to 1990 levels. It is urging the United States to do the same.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Discover

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