Tumbling Down from the Earth Summit

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, New York City.

Five years after Rio the planet is losing ground.

These days the UN looks odd. The towering buildings are still there, but the roof of the low slung General Assembly building looks like it’s being held together with silver duct tape. A few months ago a chunk crashed down denting an ambassador’s car. Now if only the U.S. would pay the more than $1 billion (U.S.) it owes, the building could get the makeover it needs.

Inside, past the phalanxes of security guards, hundreds of people scurry about. They are delegates to Earth Summit +5, the Special Session of the General Assembly. It has been five years since the first global meeting on environment and development in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Agenda 21, the Earth Summit’s action plan, was ambitious. Now it’s time for a checkup: how has the planet fared, and what remains to be done?

Throughout the five day meeting TVs drone live coverage of the seven minute delegation speeches in the General Assembly. But the real action is in the corridors where hundreds of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) roam around distributing reports. Nightly, exhausted by the muggy New York heat, we haul home their press releases and newsletters.

Five years after Rio it’s clear that the planet has lost ground. Global indicators point to a deteriorating biosphere and the risk of ecological collapse.

Yet at the same time the corporate sector has ascended in power and priority. Their agenda is clear. Bigger profits. Removal of barriers to trade. Cheap labour. Deregulation. With the help of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and MAI (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment) they’re going for it.

Compare that to the United Nations. It works by consensus. Say, for example, that China doesn’t want particular language on regulating polluting industries (an all too common occurrence). The language is then watered down until China will sign on. Or the offending phrase gets removed altogether. The lowest common denominator rules.

There were 199 speeches given within the General Assembly. One thing was clear: the major promises of Rio – to reduce greenhouse gases, protect biodiversity, and increase aid (Official Development Assistance, ODA) to developing nations to 0.7% of GNP – have with few exceptions been completely reneged upon.

The speeches all sound more or less the same, though they’re delivered in dozens of different languages. Delegates have handy headphones that can be dialed to a handful of languages. Instant translation into English or French, Arabic, Chinese or Spanish. What ever happened to Esperanto?

Once in a while a speech stands out. Tony Blair, the U.K.’s new Prime Minister, outbid the boldest commitment so far, that of the European Union to reduce CO2 levels by 15% by 2010. He upped the ante and committed the U.K. to a 20% reduction.

Then there was our own Prime Minister. Jean Chrétien’s speech would have been an embarrassment were it not for the fact that most other leaders gave virtually the same speech: we haven’t done as well as we had promised. We’re going to do better. We must do it for future generations. Etc.

The bottom line is that Canada has blown its Rio commitments. Our ODA has actually decreased to just 0.29%. Rather than stabilizing our CO2 emissions, we’ve increased them by 8%. Voluntary measures, lobbied for by business, have failed miserably.

We heard that Chrétien would be around for the day, and we hoped that he would poke his head out and risk some unscripted moments. He did.

The Prime Minister is flanked by security. Dozens of journalists jostle and try to shout out a question. I (TG) yell: “What about the subsidies to…” but I’m drowned out by another reporter. Then, the Prime Minister says “one last question”, looks around, and points to me.

“Mr. Prime Minister, what about the subsidies to the fossil fuel industry? If you’re really concerned about climate change, isn’t it wrong to subsidize the very industry that is responsible for the problem?”

“Uh, are you saying that we subsidize the fossil fuel industry?” he asks, and pauses…

“Well ya – tar sands, Hibernia.”

“Well, ah, we need da’ oil. We have Hibernia. They need the jobs.”

Is this for real? His flacks must be sweating now. The PM needs a briefing on subsidies.

Christine Stewart, our new Environment Minister, whispers something to him that gets him onto another track. The government supports renewable energy too, he says. For example: the Ballard fuel cell bus. “I drove that bus myself” he adds, surely convincing everybody present that he’s hard at work on the problem.

Later that day we attended a reception hosted by the Association of Small Island States. These folks aren’t just talking about their concern from a hypothetical perspective. If the projections are true, they’ll be flooded, or inundated into oblivion. We’re talking endangered nations, not just endangered species. They’re already losing cropland to rising waters, and the insurance companies aren’t coming to the rescue.

Maybe, at least, Exxon and Shell should pay to build some arks.

A recent UN report concluded that Agenda 21 could be easily paid for. It concluded that massive savings could be generated by reducing or eliminating harmful government subsidies, such as those to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, or those which contribute directly to the depletion of ocean fisheries. Cuts in military expenditures could also save billions. Revenues could come from gasoline and carbon taxes, and fees for the exploitation of natural resources. In other words, tax the ‘bads’ to pay for the ‘goods’ such as improving efficiency and conservation.

Finally my (TG) turn came to mount the podium of the General Assembly Hall, the centre of the U.N. I calmly urged all delegates to get serious about the issues, phase out fossil fuels and get rid of cars. I encouraged them to stop the massive subsidies to unsustainable industries. Invest in renewables, I shouted. Dead silence. Then a security guard said: “I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to leave.” It was closing time, and all the delegates had long ago departed.

As the special session wrapped up, the options were clear. Either society can let industry and government call the shots, or citizens can get active. They can define priorities and mobilize, along with the thousands of community leaders and millions of concerned citizens around the world. The wisdom of an elder, Bella Abzug, rings true: “The next millennium will be written as the triumph of weavers and dreamers, poets and musicians, peacemakers and caretakers, the generous of heart, and the courageous of spirit…”

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