Blurred vision

  • 30/07/1996

At recent meeting in New York to discuss the upcoming special session of the un General Assembly in June 1997 - which will consider the development made on the recommendations of the 1992 Rio Conference - several environmentalists and experts expressed considerable disappointment at the lack of progress on the environmental front. The meeting was chaired by eminent Swedish environmentalist Anders Wijkman, who is currently the assistant administrator of undp .

Most of the participants asked whether anything could be done to push governments to improve their track records in the area. Though I agreed that little has happened since Rio, I also felt that this was not entirely true. Anybody who followed the inter-governmental dynamics of the Rio Conference should not have expected much else.

The only clear agenda put forward at Rio was by Western nations, which wanted a certain set of global treaties to protect their long-term economic interests. The three most important treaties they had chosen were on biodiversity conservation, prevention of global warming and forest conservation. They got the first two, but the third - on forest conservation - was strongly opposed by developing countries in Rio itself.

In biodiversity conservation, there has been no progress because of the extraordinary clauses in the treaty - like any company or country taking a genetic resource from another country will have to share its research on the uses of that resource with the donor country, which firms in industrialised countries will never agree to.

Much more progress on the global warming treaty has been achieved because of developing countries (excluding those in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and the island nations working together in the Berlin Conference (1995) to put pressure on industrialised nations to set themselves specific greenhouse gas (ghg) reduction targets. But firms in industrialised countries might oppose it tooth-and-nail, arguing that leaving out developing countries (especially India, China and Brazil) from counter-committments will allow emitting firms to move to these countries and thus, reduce their competitiveness and nullify their efforts at home.

Though frustrated in Rio on the forest conservation issue, industrialised countries have persisted through the Commission on Sustainable Development, set up in Rio. An Intergovernmental Panel on Forests is already in existence which will also recommend, among other things, whether a legal instrument, another phrase for a treaty, is needed or not. Meanwhile, Britain's soft diplomacy has forced India to cave in - Kamal Nath did not feel that a forest conservation treaty was such a bad idea in his later years as environment minister - and Canada has succeeded in making Malaysia more malleable.

A forest conservation treaty may now well be on the horizon - a major economic benefit for industrialised governments, because keeping forests intact is a cheaper and popular way to reduce future ghg emissions than cutting down the number of cars in the usa and Europe. Whatever trite nonsense environmental ngo s in the West may point out about the ecological importance of forest conservation, this is not the reason why their governments are interested in this issue. So, on all issues that Western governments were interested in, there has been a slow but steady progress.

Let us now look at the issues which had interested developing nations at Rio. Firstly, the African nations were keen about a desertification convention. There has been progress here, but the convention has not attracted any money worth the name. Secondly, the island states had asked for a conference to discuss their specific problems and had hoped that a support process would emerge out of it; precious little has happened except for the conference. On the contrary, in Rio, Canada had expressed its great keenness for a conference on straddling fish stocks. If one nation forces its fisherfolk to limit their catch, uncontrolled fishing outside the exclusive economic zone by another would completely subvert that effort. Several rounds of conference on this issue have already taken place and despite the extraordinary legal complexity involved, the world may yet see another treaty.

The lesson, therefore, of Rio and its aftermath is clear. Issues in which the economic interests of industrialised countries coincide with their ecological interests are acceptable in the un ; the rest is usually a sham.

But who is to blame for all this? Surely not the democratically elected leaders of Western democracies? It is the governments and diplomats of developing countries who should be squarely blamed - like the pompous ambassadors of our foreign ministry, who never come forward with their own agenda for global environmental negotia tions. Third World environment ministry officials are even worse, because they only see lucrative job opportunities for themselves in these new global environmental agencies; and slowly but steadily, they cave in to everything.

India had consistently opposed the idea of joint implementation as a way of helping developing countries in reducing ghg emissions. But in Berlin, the obdurate Indians gave in, though still making pious noises as before. What gets my gall the most is that the subject of poverty and environment is not even on anyone's agenda. Again, who is to blame? Guess for yourself.

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