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August 30, 2002
Rio + 10 Series: The Johannesburg Summit Differs from Its Predecessor
    by William Baue

Five days into the World Summit on Sustainable Development, participants remark how the conference is different than the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.


Comparisons with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit can facilitate assessment of the Johannesburg Summit, which commenced on Monday. Consider the example of Greenpeace, an environmentalist nongovernmental organization (NGO), and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a consortium of 160 multinational corporations.

"Ten years ago we were fighting like cats and dogs," said Remi Parmentier, the political director of Greenpeace International.

On Wednesday, Greenpeace and the WBCSD temporarily shelved their differences to issue a joint Call for Action urging governments to adopt a global framework on climate change.

"Climate change is a global problem requiring a global framework," said Bjorn Stigson, the president of the WBCSD. "Business is waiting for governments to combat climate change by creating such a framework."

Mr. Stigson clarified that the WBCSD does not necessarily endorse implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which stipulates specific reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. The WBCSD advocates a free trade approach to solving environmental problems, favoring voluntary measures such as those endorsed by the Bush Administration. NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth favor a regulation-based framework.

"We need to go beyond voluntary initiatives, which are only self-regulating and don't have any monitoring or enforcement mechanisms, to something that creates real, binding rules," said David Wascow, an international policy analyst with Friends of the Earth. "That is what's necessary to create a level playing field so that you don't have some companies doing the right thing and some very irresponsible companies doing the wrong thing."

Reactions to the Greenpeace/WBCSD proposal among NGO representatives attending the Summit ran the spectrum.

"There is some cause for concern to see NGOs joining hands with corporations without obtaining substantial commitments to confront the issues of climate change and emissions," said Ilyse Hogue, a global finance campaigner for Rainforest Action Network. Ms. Hogue is participating in the Summit, which is being held in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The alliance of a notoriously anti-corporate NGO such as Greenpeace with the WBCSD, contributes to the perception that the corporate community's agenda is dominating the Summit.

"I think most of the NGOs are finding that this Summit resembles more of a trade ministerial than a conference focusing on the afflictions of the ecosystems and the people around the world," Ms. Hogue told SocialFunds.com.

However, the Summit is not devoid of opportunities to advance issues of corporate accountability and responsibility.

"I am significantly hopeful around a number of issues that we see being addressed that were not confronted ten years ago," said Ms. Hogue. "Specifically, we're seeing the role of the private financial sector in sustainable development debated across the board. That is a real advancement, I believe, on how we're going to shift these types of destructive behavior."

In the decade since the Rio Summit, foreign direct investment in developing economies has grown substantially, to the point where the influence of the private sector eclipses that of public institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. With increasing influence comes increasing responsibility to support sustainability.

"While we are excited to see that responsibility being brought to the forefront, we need to see more and more commitments like those of the most progressive banks, such as ABN AMRO, whose forest sector policy far exceeds that of any of the pubic institutions such as the World Bank," said Ms. Hogue. "Banks refusing to lend to destructive projects, combined with a solid environmental management system, can assure that our corporate banks will be on the side of building development that works for ecosystems and the people."

 

 
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