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David Miller: What Will the Earth Summit Deliver?

David Miller Online

What Will the Earth Summit Deliver?

It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that a dark cloud is hanging over the World Summit on Sustainable Development taking place in Johannesburg, even as the World’s leaders arrive there. Finding a settlement that is pleasing to everyone is a difficult, if not impossible task, and one that is not going to get any easier even after this summit closes and the environmental situation worsens. The divisions that exist between various countries, regions and political-economic groupings have already arisen. The summit that was designed to explore ways in which the environment can be protected has become mired in debate and accusations over issues such as globalisation, the regulation of trade and the impact it has on various regions around the world.

Issues such as the depletion of the Ozone Layer, deforestation, genetic modification of food and the growth in human population and food have been on the table for many years now and that are only becoming more exacerbated as time goes on. The statistics are there that show these trends are only increasing and although there are not many who would disagree, there is much division about the cost of rectifying them and who should pick up the bill. In other words, the reason this conference could easily fail to produce tangible results is because the real issue is money.

The issue of money is one that has rendered the 1992 summit in Rio de Janeiro ineffective along with the Kyoto Agreement. Money is what will condemn this latest conference to the same fate. While the issues on the table might be those to do with the environment and human development, the real issues here are who already has money, who stands to make even more, why have others have not got any and why there is a strong chance that they never will.

Already the United States has signalled that it will not enter into any agreement that places its own economic advancement at risk and that the summit is of low significance. President Bush will not attend and it is unlikely that any final document will have an American signatory on it unless the wording is altered and the final text watered down. The US is unhappy with calls by the European Union states and the Developing World for a shift away from the use of oil as a fuel and for the introduction of alternative energy sources, such as solar power. There is also reluctance on the part of the US to allow the introduction of new trade rules that benefit poorer nations when they themselves will not work to eliminate corrupt government practices and human rights abuses.

At the end of the day, the summit will struggle to produce any change because of the division of wealth that exists between rich and poor. It is easy to make calls for free trade, the granting of increased aid to poor countries and debt relief but it is unlikely to happen any faster than it already is. There is a strong argument that globalisation and trade are the cause of so many of the environmental problems and this is column is not about to enter into that debate. What is to be said here is that by constantly linking the economic and the environmental and blaming one for the other, the summit will simply fail to fulfil its promise. The world of the 21st Century is one that is driven by technological advancement, the need for economic prosperity among ones own population and the desire for corporate and financial wealth accumulation. We may not like this scenario and it may not be fair but it is the reality. There is unlikely to be any change within regions such as Europe for the relaxation of any rules that disadvantage sectors of their own population. Government leaders may say the contrary to this but such action will not win them elections back home and that includes Tony Blair. There is no way that either Mr Blair or the Bush Administration will act upon any declaration that is seen to take wealth from the UK or the US. Especially when there is a view that many of the poorer countries are controlled by ineffectual governments which have mismanaged the money entering their country.

While there has been agreement on the fight against AIDS and the protection of fish stocks, when it comes to trade and economic issues that will be where the co-operation and consensus ends. There is no desire to trade and provide aid to governments such as that of Robert Mugabe and nor should there be. If a government insists on carrying out policies that discriminate against one section of the community no matter their ethnicity or background then they must not be allowed to share in the benefits that trade liberalisation can bring. This is regardless of that country’s economic health. However at the end of the day, even this argument will be irrelevant because if the new trade rules that are negotiated are not binding and UN environmental accords can be changed or overlooked to comply with the World Trade Organisation then those who seek change will be no further forward. At the end of the day, money talks.

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