The Fate Of The Earth


MARK NICHOLS December 16 1991

The Fate Of The Earth


MARK NICHOLS December 16 1991

The Fate Of The Earth



Every day, about 470 tons of largely untreated industrial and household effluent pour into Rio de Janeiro’s graceful Guanabara Bay, beneath the landmark Sugarloaf Mountain. Indeed, the quantity of garbage and sewage polluting Rio’s waters and shores often prompts beachgoers to stay out of the water. But now, a $50-million cleanup of the city’s shoreline is under way, and the Brazilian government has earmarked almost $1 billion to install new sewage-treatment facilities as part of the campaign to purify the waters of Guanabara Bay. At the same time, a $ 150million elevated light-railway system is being built to coincide with an event that is expected to bring more than 20,000 people from nearly every nation in the world to Rio next June. Billed as the Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), organized by Canada’s Maurice Strong, will be attended by delegates from the 166 UN member nations and at least 70 heads of state, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The goal of the summit: to agree on a set of principles and conventions that will set the world on a new environmental course and, perhaps some day, eradicate the kind of pollution symbolized by Rio’s tainted waters.

The summit, which is scheduled to run from June 1 to 12, has created high expectations among many environmentalists, scientists and politicians who say that the world’s environmental problems, ranging from deforestation and air pollution to the ecological damage wrought by poverty and overpopulation, are reaching a critical point. But disagreements between rich and poor nations during a series of

preparatory meetings have raised the prospect that the summit participants might fail to agree on concerted measures to arrest global environmental degradation. Still, many of the government officials involved in the planning process insist that the time has come for the world’s governments to take collective action. Said Victor Buxton, a senior Environment Canada official who is head of a federal secretariat that is co-ordinating Canada’s summit preparations: “I don’t think the world can afford a failure. If we continue to develop the way we have for the past 50 years, then the planet is in trouble.” If the Rio conference succeeds, it could begin a process of change leading to the creation of a significantly different kind of world. International co-operation and a slower and changed approach to development would halt or reverse such problems as freshwater and ocean pollution, the accumulation of toxic waste and the wholesale levelling of forested lands. Over time, Third World poverty would be eradicated, and the migration to sprawling mega-cities that spew pollutants into the atmosphere and generate mountains of solid waste would be reversed as economic prospects in the countryside and villages improved. On the highways of the future, buses and automobiles powered by electricity and other nonfossil fuels would be the rule. And private cars might even be banned in cities. Instead, city dwellers could use credit cards to activate publicly owned, electrically powered cars. When a driver arrived at his destination, he would simply leave the car for the next user. That is the kind of new world order envisaged by Strong, the Canadian businessman and environmentalist who is UNCED’s secretary general and the driving force behind the conference (page 38). Said Strong: “We

would be moving ahead to what I call lives of sophisticated modesty.”

The Rio conference has pressing short-term objectives as well. Conference organizers say that if all goes well, world leaders will conclude their deliberations by approving a series of key documents that could then be incorporated into domestic legislation. The Rio accords would include an international convention aimed at stabilizing, and in time reducing, the emission of manmade gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that many scientists say will lead eventually to disruptive climate changes. Another convention would preserve the globe’s storehouse of genetic diversity by protecting fast-vanishing plant and animal species.

Principles: The summit is also expected to propose a set of principles to preserve large tracts of the world’s old-growth forests and to encourage forestry firms to fell trees selectively and carry out more effective replanting programs—practices that some forestry experts say Canada often fails to follow (page 40). Another document that will emerge from UNCED is the Earth Charter, which is expected to declare the responsibility of all nations to protect the Earth’s ecosystem, call for efforts to eliminate global poverty and proclaim the principles of sustainable development—a complex theory that advocates lower rates of consumption, increased grassroots influence in development decisions and forms of economic growth that also preserve the planet’s resource base.

The Rio meeting will also produce a document entitled Agenda 21, which is intended to set out rules of economic and environmental conduct for the nations of the world in the 21st century. “The stakes are high,” Strong told Maclean’s. “The evidence is strongly persuasive that we must take fundamental action. I have to believe that the leaders of the nations of the world will rise to that responsibility.”

Designed partly as a massive exercise in global consciousness-raising on the subject of the world’s environment, the Rio meeting will be the largest UN conference ever held. It will cost governments of the world an estimated

$30 million. Set against the spectacular backdrop of modern Rio, the conference will unfold inside a convention centre known as Rio Centro, about 25 km west of downtown. While an estimated 4,000 delegates and government officials from around the world, as well as a corps of more than 2,000 journalists and broadcast technicians, gather at the convention centre, a parallel meeting will take place near Rio’s downtown Flamengo Park. There, at a conference tentatively designated the ’92 Global Forum, thousands of members of organizations representing environmentalists, young people, women, aboriginal peoples and other groups from more than 100 nations will promote their

own vision of the world in the 21st century— and by their very presence, put added pressure on the summit to produce concrete results.

Indeed, organizers of the summit say that the conference is intended to reflect the concerns not only of governments, but also of the world’s citizens. After the UNCED organizing committee requested last year that national governments involve nongovernment organizations in the pre-conference planning process, most industrialized nations and many Third World countries made funds available to groups that wanted to make their views heard. In Canada, the Ottawa-based Canadian Participatory Committee for UNCED serves as a link

between federal officials involved in conference preparations and hundreds of organizations across the country representing environmentalists, native peoples, women, youth, religious groups, labor organizations and others. Said Debra MacKillop, a 17-year-old Vancouver high-school student who has been involved in conference preparations as a member of the Canadian Environmental Youth Affiance: “I would like UNCED to come up with realistic deadlines for dealing with environmental problems. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to do anything.”

In Rio, the Canadian delegation, which Mulroney may lead, will have its own areas of special interest. Federal officials say that Canada strongly supports a global convention to stabilize emissions into the atmosphere. As well, Canada wants UNCED to take steps to halt overfishing of the world’s oceans, and supports the idea of a conference declaration in favor of sustainable forestry practices—despite the fact that some of Canada’s current forestry policies may not meet the definition of what is sustainable. Federal Forestry Minister Frank Oberle acknowledges that in some parts of Canada, “there is no doubt that we are overcutting. There are danger spots that have to receive attention.” But he added: “There are no problems that I can see that are beyond redemption.”

Disagreements between industrialized and developing nations that have emerged during negotiating sessions leading up to the Rio summit, as well as a refusal by the United States to commit itself on a number of central issues, could cause UNCED to fall short of its lofty goals. During a series of meetings of the conference’s preparatory committee that be-

U Strong: `The stakes are high. The evidence is strongly persuasive that we must take action.'

solve poverty, how can we solve environmental problems?' • Hanilt: `It we do not

gan in August, 1990, in Nairobi, a group of developing nations led by India and Malaysia have demanded that the industrial nations, which they say have been largely responsible for damaging the global environment, set up multibiffion-dollar funds. The money would be used to enable poorer countries to develop economically and eradicate poverty without creating new sources of pollution. As well, Third World nations want access to modem technology, including clean-burning furnaces and other environmentally acceptable equipment, at preferential prices.

Cautiously: But negotiators for the industrialized nations, many of which are currently struggling with severe recessionary conditions, have so far responded cautiously to the Third World demands. And U.S. negotiators have flatly refused to consider setting aside any new funds outside of existing foreign-aid commitments. “There must be some kind of mechanism so that the Third World can get the technology they need to protect the environment,” said Hussein Haniff, counsellor at the Malaysian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York City. “So far, we don’t see that the developed countries are really serious. We want actions, not words.”

Washington has also assumed a tough stance during negotiations on a proposed climatechange convention, which would aim to stabilize the emission of gases that scientists say are responsible for the so-called greenhouse effect. Experts say that the phenomenon could cause the Earth’s temperature to rise dramatically during the next century. So far, American negotiators have refused to consider specific targets and timetables for stabilizing or reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a product

of combustion involving petroleum, coal and other fossil fuels that scientists say is largely responsible for the greenhouse effect. Some European countries, including Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, are already committed to reductions in CO2 emissions of up to 25 per cent by the year 2005, while Ottawa’s March, 1990, Green Plan commits Canada to stabilizing CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Green Plan estimated that if no action was taken, CO2 emissions in Canada would increase by 17 per cent between 1990 and 2000. The proposed convention on greenhouse gases would resemble the 1987 Montreal Protocol, under which signatory nations undertook to phase out emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, a chemical that scientists say is damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

American negotiators are pressing for a convention that would address a wide range of emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide, along with CO2. As well, U.S. officials have rejected the idea of specific reduction targets and contend that Washington’s 1990 Clean Air Act and a variety of energy-efficiency measures will lead to a significant net reduction in emissions in the United States by the end of this century. Still, some observers say that the American rejection of specific targets may only be a bargaining position. By agreeing at the last minute in Rio to stabilize CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by the end of the century, the United States, said Robert Homung, an expert on atmospheric issues with the environmental organization Friends of the Earth in Ottawa, “could suddenly appear as a hero of the conference.”

Negotiations on the proposed global convention on genetic diversity—“biodiversity” in conference shorthand—have also been marked by differences of opinion. Most nations agree that as forests and other habitats are destroyed, the world’s inventory of plant and animal species is being rapidly depleted. Scientists estimate that the Earth is probably home to more than 10 million species of animals and plants. But they say that as a result of habitat destruction, overharvesting and other causes, as many as one-quarter of those species, ranging from Africa’s northern white rhinoceros to southern Ontario’s cucumber tree, could be extinct within a few decades. “It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of this issue,” said John Herity, director of Environment Canada’s office on biodiversity. “We are really talking about life on Earth.”

As well, scientists say that the loss of biodiversity robs human society of potentially valuable genetic material that can be used to create improved agricultural plants and new pharmaceuticals. Indeed, more than 25 per cent of the world’s prescription drugs originate from genetic material that grows in the world’s rain forests, which are currently being levelled at the rate of 50 million acres a year. The anticancer drug vincristine, for one, is made from a plant called the Madagascar rosy periwinkle.

An important aim of the convention on biodiversity would be to encourage all countries to

set aside so-called biogenetic reserves that would be off limits to forestry firms and other developers. In return, nations in the Third World, where most of the world’s biodiversity is located, want industrialized nations to make funding available to compensate poorer countries for the revenues lost when the reserves are set up.

The debate over financing has led to a widening gulf between rich and poor nations at the negotiations leading up to UNCED. “The key issue of financial and technical resources,” said Jean-Claude Faby, the French-born environmentalist who heads UNCED’s office in New York, is “politically an extremely difficult question, and one which down the line will probably

Buxton: ‘If we continue to develop the way we have for the past 50 years, the planet is in trouble’

Faby: ‘The key issue of resources will probably make or break the summit’

be the make-or-break element” for the conventions on climate change and biodiversity. According to Douglas Russell, director of the Canadian government team at the climatechange negotiations, the world’s developing nations “are saying that the developed nations caused the problems and that it’s their responsibility to pay compensation to the developing countries.”

Poverty: On an even more fundamental level, the argument between rich and poor nations turns on what UNCED is really about. While Canada and other industrialized countries see the meeting as an opportunity to take decisive action against harmful environmental practices, officials from Third World countries, where about 80 per cent of the world’s population lives, have expressed more concern about the word “development” in UNCED’s title. Third World spokesmen argue that widespread poverty in developing countries is itself a major cause of environmental degradation, forcing

millions of Third World citizens in Africa, Asia and Latin America to chop down every available tree and farm their land to exhaustion simply to survive. “If we do not solve poverty,” said Malaysia’s Haniff, “I do not see how we can solve our environmental problems.”

So far, calls by the Third World for new financial assistance and new technology at preferential rates have met with a muted response from most industrialized countries— and rejection from the United States, which, as the world’s largest economy, would be expected to contribute heavily. “The Third World sees the UNCED negotiations as a tool to get some advantage out of the industrialized world,” said a senior state department official

in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But writing blank cheques is not the answer.”

Despite the U.S. refusal to consider new forms of financing, UNCED officials said that Strong still hoped that a way could be found to set up cash funds that would assist Third World nations in protecting their environments and controlling emissions into the atmosphere. In July, Strong asked former Japanese prime minister Noboru Takeshita to help look for a solution to the funding issue. As a result, Takeshita scheduled a meeting in Tokyo next April of experts on international finance, including former World Bank president Robert MacNamara, Paul Volcker, a former U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman, and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Participants at the meeting will explore ways of raising the billions of dollars needed to encourage Eastern European nations and other developing countries to develop their economies

without increasing environmental pollution.

At the same time, other ways of compensating Third World nations for environmental measures are under study. Under one proposal aimed at preserving biodiversity, Western governments would encourage pharmaceutical firms to form partnerships with developing nations to develop drugs based on plants that grow in tropical forests. As a demonstration of how such partnerships could work, the Rahway, N.J.-based Merck & Co. pharmaceutical firm signed on Sept. 19 a $l-million, two-year agreement with Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity. Under the agreement, institute employees will search for promising plant species on behalf of the drug company.

Faced with proposing solutions to a formidable array of environmental problems, and tom by profound disagreements among the participating nations, the historic meeting in Rio next summer could easily fail to achieve all of its goals. Still, conference organizers and other participants say that one of the principal purposes for staging UNCED is to alert the world to the need for action—and to begin a process that will unfold through the next century. “Striking a bargain at Rio is going to be difficult,” said Buxton. “AU I can tell you is that we can’t go on the way we are—and everybody knows it.” The final significance of the summit may not be apparent for years. But it could be that in the distant future, historians of a stillhealthy planet will look back and recognize, gratefully, that Rio was a turning point.

MARK NICHOLS with MAC MARGOLIS in Rio de Janeiro




When delegates gather in Rio de Janeiro for next June’s Earth Summit, they will focus on ways of halting worldwide environmental degradation. But many participants will also look for evidence of improvement in Brazil’s spotty environmental record. Indeed, some Brazilians expressed concern that former president José Samey’s decision to promote Brazil as host of the UN conference could prove embarrassing. During Samey’s period in office, from April, 1985, to March, 1990, ranchers and peasants burned hundreds of thousands of square miles of Brazil’s rain forest to make

land available for agriculture. And in December, 1988, two Amazon ranchers murdered environmentalist Francisco Alves (Chico) Mendes, who had campaigned for the preservation of that forest. Environmentalists also expressed concern over about 60,000 prospectors who invaded Brazil’s Amazon River basin in 1987 and began releasing mercury into the environment in their search for gold.

For his part, Femando Collor de Mello, the media-conscious politician who succeeded Sarney in March, 1990, made protecting the environment part of his inauguration speech. Collor intervened to force the destruction of airstrips used by gold prospectors in the lands inhabited by the 9,000-member Yanomami native tribe. But the prospectors quickly rebuilt the airstrips. Critics claimed that after a year and a half of Collor’s administration, the prom-

ise of bold leadership on environmental issues had proved illusory.

Still, with the approach of the UN conference, Collor has made renewed efforts. The government recently released $156 million for programs aimed at preserving forests. And in November, Collor declared 37,000 square miles of Yanomami land off limits to outsiders. Meanwhile, environmentalists said that the annual burning of forest for land clearance, which usually occurs during July and August, would likely be more restrained this year than in the past. But they added that any lessening of the destruction would owe more to Brazil’s recessionary economic conditions than to the efforts of its government.

MAC MARGOLIS in Rio de Janeiro