United Nations

Looking ahead to "Rio Plus 10," the UN begins to assess progress since the Earth Summit

In an effort to assess the achievements and shortfalls worldwide in achieving sustainable development, the United Nations will hold the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 2-11 September 2002.

UNITED NATIONS - Of the major United Nations conferences in the 1990s, none captured the world's imagination like the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

Among the first of such meetings to take place after the end of the cold war, the Earth Summit showed how a wide range of actors, from UN agencies to nation states to non-governmental organizations to associations of private enterprise, could come together and set a bold, consensus-based agenda for action on a major global concern - in this case, how to balance environmental protection with development.

Nearly ten years later, however, many of the commitments made in Agenda 21, as the Earth Summit's ground-breaking action plan is known, remain unfulfilled.

In March, the United Nations released a series of reports on progress made towards achieving the goals of Agenda 21. Those reports indicate progress on many fronts. For instance, the public is more generally aware of environmental issues, gains have been made in life expectancy and areas of health, and there has been a decline in the world population growth rate.

In other areas, however, efforts to achieve sustainable development - the goal of the Earth Summit - have fallen short.

The reports indicate, for example, that while the overall poverty rate worldwide has declined, it has increased in some countries and the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably; that energy use is up even though global economic growth is down; that average development assistance from donor countries has dropped as a percentage of their gross national product, instead of rising as promised; that global warming remains a significant threat; and that, as a result of continuing environmental problems like climate change, deforestation and desertification, the number of endangered plant and animal species continues to rise.

In an effort to assess more fully the achievements and shortfalls in the field of environment and development, the United Nations will next year hold the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). Designed as part of the formal 10-year review process that the major UN conferences of the 1990s are undergoing, the Summit will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2-11 September 2002.

At the meeting of the WSSD's first Preparatory Committee (PrepCom), held at UN headquarters in New York, 30 April-2 May 2001, the general outline of work leading up to the Johannesburg Summit was established - and some of the key themes it will likely focus on began to emerge.

In outlining its program of work, the PrepCom established dates for future preparatory meetings, adopted provisional rules of procedure for the Summit, and set a preliminary agenda for high-level meetings in Johannesburg. It also established arrangements for accreditation and participation of NGOs and other major groups, such as businesses, which have all been encouraged to become involved.

In terms of new themes, a number of issues began to emerge at the PrepCom, including how sustainable development relates to globalization and the eradication of poverty. In addition, there was much discussion about the necessity of values and ethics in promoting sustainable development.

"The world does not look the same as it did when we met in Rio ten years ago," said Nitin Desai, the UN's Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, addressing the PrepCom. "Changes have taken place, which we cannot but take into account when we meet again at the Johannesburg Summit. The most important of these is globalization.

"Globalization has resulted in the growing integration of economies, but not just of economies, but also of many other areas of life, the impact of which needs to be considered in Johannesburg. We need to look at the impact of globalization on the possibility for sustainable development at the local or national level and we need to look at the particular areas that should be addressed," said Mr. Desai. "An important subset is the concern about how we make the operations of large companies and transnational corporations compatible with sustainable development."

Mr. Desai said another important issue that the WSSD is likely to address is the relationship between sustainable development and "the emerging agenda on poverty eradication."

"Much of the agenda on poverty eradication is people centered," said Mr. Desai. "It focuses attention on services to be delivered to individuals. What sustainable development can contribute to this agenda is a focus on the resources dimension. An individual cannot be brought out of poverty unless you address squarely the quality, the integrity, and the productivity of the resources on which that individual's livelihood depends. This is particularly true for the rural poor in the developing world, but is certainly also important for addressing the concerns of the urban poor. Many of their concerns are concerns that connect directly with the sustainable development agenda."

Participants in the PrepCom indicated that the WSSD will also likely focus on how better to bring sustainable development and Agenda 21 from theory to practice.

Emil Salim, chairman of the PrepCom, took note of negative and positive trends that the WSSD will need to address. Prof. Salim, a top diplomat from Indonesia, said worldwide consumption continues to grow faster than the "regeneration capacity" of renewable resources and major features of Agenda 21 have not been embraced as priorities.

On the positive side, he said, concepts and theories of sustainable development have been advanced and have won wide backing among major groups in the private sector and civil society.

"The bottom line, however, is the fact that the development that we have pursued this far is not sustainable in any economic, social and environmental sense," said Prof. Salim. He called on developing and developed countries to work more closely to bring sustainable development into reality.

"The world is shrinking and interdependency is the driving force of development today," he added. "It forces upon us the need to reinvigorate effective implementation of sustainable development. The international community has the skill, technology and capacity to improve the sustainable development architecture.

"To develop this architecture, we need to join forces together, developed and developing countries. Both countries are in the same Spaceship Earth facing the challenge of moving along the chartered course of sustainable development. The alternative to this is that we all together, developed and developing countries, in this same Spaceship Earth, will crash in an environmental catastrophe," said Prof. Salim.

The question of how to promote more widely the ethic of sustainable development and the values needed to ensure its success emerged as another key theme at the PrepCom.

"One of the most important outputs of the Rio conference was the Rio Declaration," said Halldor Thorgeisson, head of Iceland's delegation to the PrepCom, referring to the overarching statement of principles issued by governments at the Earth Summit. "It laid the conceptual and ethical framework for our work. The World Summit could advance this conceptual and ethical framework even further."

Mr. Thorgeisson suggested that among the ethical principles that might be stressed is the "common responsibility" for all to promote "development which meets real needs without causing environmental damage."

In a statement to the PrepCom, the Baha'i International Community likewise stressed the fundamental importance of ethics and values in achieving sustainable development, and in particular urged the PrepCom to explore the importance of spiritual values. The Community was one of five NGO statements read to the plenary session on the opening day.

"[U]nless and until spiritual issues become central to the development process, the establishment of a sustainable global civilization will prove impossible," said the statement, which was entitled "Sustainable Development: The Spiritual Dimension."

"For the vast majority of the world's people the idea that human nature is fundamentally spiritual is an incontrovertible truth. Indeed, this perception of reality is the defining cultural experience for most of the world's people and is inseparable from how they perceive themselves and the world around them," the statement continued. "It is, therefore, only by bringing a focus on the spiritual dimension of human reality that development policies and programs can truly reflect the experiences, conditions and aspirations of the planet's inhabitants and elicit their heartfelt support and active participation."

The Baha'i statement also urged the PrepCom to look at the development of interfaith relations and the expansion of interfaith initiatives as it searches for new ways to motivate people to embrace sustainable development.

"Religious and spiritual traditions are increasingly coming together to foster friendliness, fellowship and understanding among their diverse communities," the statement continued. "They are also increasingly working together on policies, programs and initiatives with secular bodies ranging from private enterprises and organizations of civil society, to governments and international institutions. In such work, religious and spiritual value systems are viewed not as separate from 'real world concerns,' but as vital sources of knowledge and motivation, as wellsprings of values, insights, and energy without which social cohesion and collective action are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve."

"Ultimately, the creation of a peaceful and just global civilization, in which the diverse peoples of the world live in harmony with one another and with the natural world, will require a significant reorientation of individual and collective goals and a profound transformation in attitudes and behaviors," the statement concluded. "Such far-reaching changes will come about only by addressing the non-material dimension of reality and drawing on humanity's vast spiritual resources."

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