Economy over ecology

  • 14/06/1997

In the last week of June, prime ministers and beads of states will meet once again to review the progress the world has made in the last five years, on its commitments towards environment made at the Rio conference. This time the venue will be a special session of the General Assembly of United Nations (UN). The UNGASS, as the special session is referred to, is quite likely to deteriorate into a typical UN conference, replete with a lot of hot air. Given the fact that little progress has been made either in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or in protecting biodiversity, NGOS are already describing the last five years not as Rio+5 but as Rio-5. While there were hundreds of objectives set before nations for good environmental management, protecting the atmosphere and biodiversity were two key objectives agreed to in Rio.

Several problems have emerged in the intervening years. Firstly, governments from both the North and the South have repeatedly come to such international meetings with very little interest in saving the Earth's ecology. More interested in saving their national economies, they do not want to accept any ecological responsibilities which will impose a heavy economic burden on them. So, they wish to negotiate for the minimum possible, in a way which will ensure the lowest costs. Otherwise, they would prefer blocking any progress on these negotiations. The US government, for instance, which is the biggest emitter Of GHGs and would have to substantially increase its energy prices to reduce its GHG emissions, is extremely reticent over accepting any time-bound targets for GHG reduction. One of the world's biggest users of genetic resources from the South, the US has not even ratified the biodiversity convention. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, fearing reduction in oil demand, has opposed any move to restrict GHG emissions.

The second big problem has been the total failure of developing countries to come forth with any proposals on how to manage the world's environment. As one observer from India put it, "If Indians don't have a visione"about how to manage India's environment, how can we expect them, to have a vision to manage the world's environment?" Quite so, but in the existing scenario countries like India adopt a standard obstructionist policy to every proposal that is inevitably made by the North. The first principle of the South's global green diplomacy is 'be difficult'. The standard line is: "We did not create the problem, you did. So why are you asking us to do anything?"

The North's response to this is: "But with your economic growth and changing consumption patterns, even if you are not an 'environmental criminal today, you will be one tomorrow." The hidden agenda behind these words is that if developing countries do not join the effort to save the ecology, industrialised countries and their companies will alone have to bear the cost of being environment- friendly and will thereby become less competitive in the global economy. But leaders in the North are also under pressure from their NGOs and public opinion to do something.

As a result, negotiations quickly turn into a round of business deals. Developing countries have a standard refrain: "We are prepared to do anything you want, but give us three things a grace period to make the change, promise of technology transfer and financial assistance." The North agrees, knowing full well that it is not going to give either money or technology, and the South happily signs on the dotted line. Newspapers give big publicity to the agreement and everybody goes home happily waiting for the next photo session. And five years later, somebody else has to explain the non-action.

The biggest reason for this irresponsibility and unaccountability of governments in these international commitments lies in their very natures. These negotiations and agreements (rather, business transactions) take place in faraway capitals; there is almost no reportage of the negotiations by the media; members of the civil society like NGOs, academics and activists have almost no information on what is happening, nor any avenue by which they can influence the discussions, and thus governments are under no pressure to weigh their words. Does anybody know, for instance, what the Indian delegation said in the Commission on Sustainable Development which concluded its last annual meeting in New York in April? We don't, even when we have tried. The Commission was set up in Rio to review every year the progress made on the countries' environmental commitments.

The entire international environmental process has thus become extremely non-transparent (even though, technically, NGOS can attend the meetings in these global capitals) and disempowering. But there is still a lot at stake. Not only do we have to ensure good environmental management for our survival, but we also have to do it in a just and fair manner for everyone. The civil society of every nation, both Northern and Southern, will have to empower itself and make its government accountable and responsible, but it can do this only if it makes a special effort. A special effort to monitor what is happening out there, analyse the meaning behind the rhetoric and push governments to take appropriate positions and action. It's a hard task, but in a globalising world there are no options.

Related Content