When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit on Sustainable Development can save the world–the question is whether the summit can even save itself.
The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call “implementation” and the rest of us call “doing something.” Much of the blame for the “implementation gap” is being placed at the doorstep of the United States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned the only significant environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to Johannesburg (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the issues being discussed here–from basic sanitation to clean energy–are low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that is most belligerently blocking all proposals that involve either directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant new funds to sustainable development.
But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn’t failing because of anything happening now in Johannesburg. It’s failing because the entire process was booby-trapped from the start.
When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive gathering that brought all the “stakeholders” to the table–not just governments but also nongovernmental organizations (environmentalists, indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations. Strong’s vision allowed for more participation from civil society than any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio with clear conditions: They’d embrace ecologically sustainable practices but only voluntarily–through nonbinding codes and “best practices” partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business was pushed off.
In Johannesburg, these “partnerships” have passed into self-parody, with the conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW “clean cars” and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The summit’s main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa’s soon-to-be-privatized national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom’s restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each month.