Rio+5: Wake-Up Call for Earth Cleanup

Special Report

When he looks out the window of his home in the foothills that surround the stark, snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro, Msuya Mangachi can see the peril facing the earth.

Once rich with green forest and abundant rivers and streams, the foothills that reach down to the coast are now patched with brown earth and dust. The forest was stripped to make way for settlements for the growing population. Rainfall has become uncertain, and the rivers often run shallow and dirty.

"You can literally see the degradation," says Mr. Mangachi, one of Tanzania's chief negotiators at the United Nations.

With more than 65 heads of state gathered at the UN this week for a special session to assess the progress made since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Mangachi now stands at the center of the pivotal debate here: Who is responsible for the future of global environmental protection?

By all accounts that question was supposed to have been answered at Rio. But five years later, with few of the promises of that landmark environmental summit fulfilled, the question again laces every discussion, generating rancor, frustration, and in some people, real hope for the future.

For decades, the world's northern and southern countries were at environmental loggerheads.

The North, which polluted at will for generations in building its industrial base and high standard of living, recognized by the 1960s that something had to be done to clean up the mess. Ohio's Cuyahoga River was so dirty, it spontaneously burst into flames one glaringly hot, summer afternoon in 1969.

But the southern developing countries were more interested in catching up to the North economically. If the air got a little dirty in the process, it was simply seen as the price of progress.

For many, the Rio summit's greatest success was in breaking that impasse.

"The environmental future of the entire world is likely to be settled in the developing world," says Maurice Strong, the Canadian industrialist who was secretary-general of the Earth Summit five years ago. Through his gentle, insistent prodding, Mr. Strong managed to bring about the agreement.

Going after greenhouse gases

The northern developed countries acknowledged they created much of the world's pollution in generating their riches and agreed to take the lead in finding a global environmental solution. Their first priority and pledge: to cut down on noxious emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are creating a "greenhouse" effect in the upper atmosphere. If unaddressed, scientists say the resulting climate change could cause the oceans to rise and bring about extreme, sometimes violent changes in the weather.

Timothy Wirth, America's undersecretary of state for global affairs, calls that the "most important global challenge facing the world."

After Rio, it appeared the world was ready to take it on.

At the same time developed countries pledged to attack greenhouse gases, they also agreed to provide significantly more economic aid to their poorer, southern neighbors. Those developing nations, in turn, pledged to use that help to avoid the industrialized world's costly environmental mistakes.

But five years later, those and other well-intentioned environmental pledges from the Rio summit ring hollow.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to spew into the atmosphere unabated, with the United States still leading the way. Tens of millions of acres of oxygen-rich forests continue to be clear-cut every year; almost half of the world's forests have already been destroyed. And too many boats are still chasing too few fish, leaving 70 percent of the world's fisheries either depleted or overexploited.

Not all bad news

"There has been some progress, but it's mostly been on paper," says Clifton Curtis, political adviser for Greenpeace International.

Because of a treaty signed before the Rio summit, the chemicals eating away at the earth's atmospheric ozone layer have been reduced. And since Rio, several new treaties have been agreed upon. The Basel Convention bans the shipment of hazardous waste from one country to another. International negotiators agreed to prohibit the dumping of radioactive and other hazardous wastes into the ocean. There will also be a convention soon to address the production of persistent organic pollutants, synthetically engineered compounds known as POPS.

Waiting for the dollars

But the most important legacy of Rio, from Mangachi's perspective, is a failure. The industrialized world has not provided the promised assistance to poorer countries. In fact, it's giving less money now than it did five years ago.

"This kills the Rio spirit," says Tanzania's Mangachi.

He and others expect world leaders to reaffirm their pledge to increase aid this week, but few believe it will materialize in the next five years.

The northern countries no longer believe there's a need for massive infusions of foreign aid. They are now convinced that private foreign investment coupled with strict local environmental regulations will eventually solve the developing world's environmental problems.

In essence, the industrialized nations have shifted the responsibility for future environmental protection from themselves to the free market.

Countries like Tanzania, Strong says, have every right to be resentful: The developed world should live up to its commitments. To find a solution, Strong is again trying to change the way each side looks at the debate.

The developing nations, he says, should recognize that even at increased levels, foreign aid represents a pittance compared with the money that private investment can potentially bring in. These countries should do their best to build strong environmental regulations to ensure any new development is sustainable.

The North, in turn, should recognize that without promised foreign aid, countries in the developing world may have difficulty finding the resources and the political will to build such environmental safeguards. Many are preoccupied with a more fundamental problem: how to feed their people.

Aid as an investment

"It shouldn't be seen as aid by us; it should be seen as an investment in our own future," says Strong, still determined to keep the debate positive and moving ahead. "There's no way that we can have a secure future in environmental terms if the developing countries don't accompany their economic growth with measures to make that growth sustainable."

Joke Waller-Hunter, director of the UN's division of sustainable development, agrees the developed world should provide the promised aid. But she also sees merit in encouraging regulatory and market reforms in the developing world.

"I think [the approach is] more focused and pragmatic. There's a whole discussion on how to adjust your fiscal and tax structures to introduce elements that encourage sustainable development," says Ms. Waller-Hunter.

Aggravation and hope

But for others, the rehashing of the question of responsibility has generated enormous frustration, particularly because it is coupled with a failure on the part of both the northern and southern countries to commit to clear, legally binding targets on a whole range of issues from climate change to protecting the forests.

"Forgive me for being frustrated, but we've been standing on a slippery slope because we didn't make those commitments," says Razali Ismail, president of the UN General Assembly and chairman of this week's meeting.

Strong, however, is still an optimist and sees progress in the decision of more than 65 world leaders to come to this summit and reaffirm their commitment to sustainable development. But he's also realistic and knows that unless nations reverse the current trends, the world may be headed for disaster.

That's what Msuya Mangachi sees sometimes when he looks out his window at home. While at the moment he's feeling a bit grim, he too is hopeful. He has to be. Otherwise there would be no use in staying in New York and arguing about the future.

Post-Rio Report Card

There has been some progress toward a healthy environment, but without significant change, the goal of "sustainable development" espoused at the 1992 Earth Summit may be difficult to reach.

Poverty

Gaps between rich and poor continue to grow. More than 1.1 billion people - 20 percent of the world's population - live on the equivalent of less than $1 a day

CONSUMPTION

Twenty percent of the world's people consume 80 percent of its resources. Some large developing countries are moving rapidly toward higher-consumption lifestyles.

POPULATION

Fertility rates are declining more rapidly than expected in most regions, but population-growth rates still strain natural resources in some countries.

FORESTS

Forest loss has declined, but 13.7 million hectares of forest - about the size of Arkansas - are cut or burned yearly.

FRESH WATER

One-fifth of the world's population lacks access to safe water. By 2025, two-thirds of the population could live in countries facing moderate or severe water stress.

OcEANS

About 60 percent of fish stocks are overfished or fully fished. Marine pollution continues to pose serious problems.

CLIMATE

Global emissions of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases, are rising.

ENERGY

Rapid growth in fossil-fuel use in many developing countries is leading to severe pollution. Energy consumption is projected to more than double by 2050.

LAND

World food production is rising, but more than 800 million people still suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Pesticides, poor farming methods, and desertification - the degradation of drylands - have taken a heavy toll.

TOXICS

About 3 million tons of toxic and hazardous waste crosses national borders each year.

BIODIVERSITY

About 50,000 plant and animal species are lost each year.

Source: United Nations

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