MAURICE STRONG, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, was interviewed recently in Geneva by Pierre Haski, a staff writer of the Paris-based newspaper, Liberation, on behalf of the World Media Network. The conference, also known as the Earth Summit, is set to begin June 3 in Rio de Janeiro. The following are excerpts from the interview:
What will, in your mind, make the difference in Rio between good intentions and real commitments?
Two and a half years of preparations and negotiations which have yielded some 98 percent of the proposals we have put to governments have already reached agreement. The 2 percent that is left is, of course, extremely important, but I believe we have a good chance to bridge those gaps.
Isn't the absence of a gendarmerie in the follow-up to the summit the main weakness of the whole operation ?
That is a reflection of the state of our world. We do not have a central world government, and if we are going to insist that you set up a central world government and a central world gendarmerie before you deal with environment problems, the planet will be dead. We have to work with the system we've got, which is nation states working together through the United Nations, which is the only global organization that can perform that function.
Isn't United States reluctance during the preparation of the earth summit a bad omen?
First of all, the US reluctance has got a lot of attention because it's been concentrated on a couple of issues, particularly on its unwillingness to accept firm targets on CO2. But the US has been extremely active and cooperative on a tremendous number of issues.
Are they prepared to contribute financially?
We don't know that for sure, but in principle they have now crossed that bridge. In practice they have even made $75 million available as a good gesture to start with.
It's not a huge amount of money, but it's not unimportant as a starting point.
Isn't Japan becoming the real "environment superpower?"
Yes, I think there is a real movement in that direction from Japan. What I call Japan's second miracle is the way in which it has so dramatically reduced air and water pollution in Japan itself. The rest of the world doesn't know much about that. They look at Japan's environmental record in terms of fishing, damage to the tropical forest, whales - the kind of things for which the Japanese have been widely criticized. But ... Japan is in the process of developing a national consensus to project its nation al performance into its international activity.
How do you evaluate Western Europe's contribution to the preparation of Rio de Janerio?
It is mixed. The [European] Community itself has been very positive, in some ways more positive than some of its members. The membership varies in terms of the degree of their activity and preparation for Rio, but all have been actively engaged. There is not a homogeneity in the position of the Community at this stage, but there is a high degree of commitment. The Commission of the Community, in addition to its members, has played an extremely active role.
Has Eastern Europe, after having realized the damage made to its environment, introduced this preoccupation in its development strategies?
Again, you cannot give an absolute answer across the board. Eastern Europe is no longer a homogeneous whole. There are great differences from country to country.
But all have in common that they are deeply aware of the environmental damage that was done to them during the previous regime. They are anxious not to repeat that. But they are caught in a dilemma, with tremendous pressures for job creation. My own belief is that environmentally-sound development will be the key to the future. I think they realize that. My concern is that they might be tempted to take the short-term expediency of accepting new investments without special environment safeguards.
What do you think should be done to help them adopt environmentally safe development?
Governments of the nations of Eastern and Central Europe need to work with industry and investors to ensure that high standards of environmental performance are incorporated in the new investments.
Should that be a voluntary process or a regulated one?
It should be both. The international agencies, such as the European Bank or the World Bank, will of course incorporate these considerations in their own requirements. But when I say that industry itself must act responsibly, what I mean is not that they should be exempted from government regulations but that they themselves should not have expectations of lower standards than they would accept in other areas.
Do you expect Rio to be the first shot of a new North-South confrontation as is widely predicted ?
The media always play up the North-South confrontation. But the remarkable thing is that 175 nations, the vast majority of them from the developing countries, are working so constructively to reach agreement. And we have in fact reached agreement on 98 percent of the proposals put before Rio. It's been over two years to accomplish that. Of course, it's normal to concentrate on those things which have not been agreed, because important things have not yet been agreed. That's why you have a summit conferen ce! The preparatory committee permits agreement on all those things that are feasible for them to agree on below the level of their top leadership, leaving those very key issues to the top leadership.
What's left in those 2 percent?
The key issue is finance; other issues are left open. Some governments have been concerned about giving too much emphasis on family planning; others have been concerned about energy efficiency.... There are a number of areas which have not yet been agreed. But in most of those areas the number of countries that have been unwilling to agree are a small minority. That leaves the finance issue as a very central issue.
You have been quoted with the astronomical figure of $125 billion a year to implement the Rio program. Who will pay?
Our figures were not pulled out of the air. They were estimates based on each element of "Agenda 21," the program that we hope governments will approve at the conference. The total was even larger than $125 billion: $625 billion. However, that represents the cost to developing countries, not the cost to everybody. At least 80 percent of those costs must be borne by developing countries themselves - not by growing new money on trees, but by redeploying their own resources and reshaping their own policies,
which is in their own interest to do. The additional percent must come from industrialized countries, a total of approximately $125 billion. But some $55 billion are already flowing to developing countries, so that leaves about $70 billion. Nobody expects that Rio will produce $70 billion overnight.
In fact, there will be questions as to whether it could be absorbed, because developing countries have got to make some significant changes of their own. But over time, when the developing countries are able to make those changes, they need to depend on those external supports. That support should not be looked at just as foreign aid, but as an essential investment in our own environmental security.
Isn't there a basic misunderstanding in which rich countries don't want to pay more and third-world countries suspect the West of refusing them technology transfers?
I don't think it's a misunderstanding. There are differences, but they are not of understanding. The industrialized countries realize the developing countries need to grow. They also realize that it is in everybody's interest to help them to grow and to do so in an environmentally sound way. That means helping them financially, with private investments, to have access to the technologies which they need.... Developing countries say: "Look, we need the technologies, we must have them on a subsidized prefe rential basis. The question is how do you do that, given that technologies cost money to develop. These are differences, not so much on whether it's desirable, but how best to do it? The rich countries [know] that they have a special responsibility. But they feel poor! The rich countries today are beset upon by budgetary problems, by internal economic problems, by external political and economic pressures of various kinds. So it's not the best of times to try to get the rich to change. But by the same token , it's not a good time for the poor to change, either. But the evidence makes it clear that we must start this process of change, rich and poor. Not just because of future generations, but for our own good.
You claim it is compatible to [combine] good business with a sound environment. How do you marry the two ?
How can you move to a sound environmental situation if business is not in the course of its activities incorporated? You cannot solve our environmental problems without business. Business is the prime actor in which we through our economy impact on the environment. And we, as consumers, cannot divorce ourselves from business. Everyone of us is part of the system. We have to change the full system, change individual behavior. And business has to be an important part of that change. The way to mobilize bus iness is to ensure that their basic motivation for profit will correspond with society's motivation for a better environment.
Who will manage the follow-up after Rio? Should there be a new body?
Final decision on that has not been made by governments. However, in the preparatory committee, governments have recognized some important mechanism is needed.
Is Rio the last conference of the 20th century or the first of the 21st?
The Earth summit will establish the basis for our hopes and aspirations for the 21st century. If we were to fail in Rio to take those basic decisions, we would have a much more ominous and unpromising future in the 21st century.
The end of the cold war has provided an international framework in which it is now possible to cooperate in practical ways, without ideologies separating us. Therefore, I think if we can set this new path it will create a tremendous amount of creativity and hope as we move into the 21st century. In that sense, it is both the final event of the 20th century and the beginning of a more hopeful 21st century.