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For the Globalization of Sustainability

by Klaus Topfer Friday, Nov. 10, 2006 at 4:40 AM

The euphoria of Rio was based on the certainty that these visions could be realized thanks to a peace dividend.. Consumption is till the first civic duty in industrial countries.


By Klaus Topfer

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web at Klaus Topfer, the former German environmental minister, was director of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) in Nairobi from 1998 to 2006.]

Let us recall 1992 – the year of the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. This was the first global conference after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Supported by the euphoria of the historical development, people wanted to imagine a new future dimension of the world and work out a program concretizing the vision: peace and just development chances for all people, respecting human rights and global social responsibility while preserving a sustainable nature and a stable and efficient environment.

The euphoria of Rio was based on the almost undisputed certainty that these visions could be realized thanks to a peace dividend. The hundreds of billions of dollars and rubles that previously were vaporized for destructive projects in the East and West should help reduce or even remove future poverty and adjust the life chances between North and South.

A similar dream was invoked 50 years ago under the giant Sequoia trees in the forests of San Francisco. The founding of the United Nations on June 25, 1945 was a decisive step toward a global institution of peace security. Never again should problems be solved bilaterally or with force of arms. The obligation to negotiate solutions was codified in a global, multilateral way. Military interventions were only legitimate as the last possible means in international law for securing peace. A multilateral decision of the UN Security Council was explicitly required for any military interventions.

To fulfill its peace tasks, the UN must identify early on the causes of possible conflicts. This core of a preventive peace policy adopted in the 1945 UN Charter Art 1.3 seeks international cooperation for solving economic, social, cultural and humanitarian international problems.

The whole program stood under the motto “Make poverty history, make conflicts and wars history, make environmental destruction history and make human abuse history.” The historical mastery of these evils should be the joint responsibility of all people and thus of the UN that has the necessary resources.

These goals were also the most important motivations for the Rio summit and the resolutions adopted there:

· “Agenda 21” as an “obligation” for developed countries,

· The “Rio principles” that codify the causation principle and the precautionary principle regarding the environment guarantee access to information on environmental encumbrances.

In addition, the Rio principles stress the promise of development for all people and a common responsibility differently apportioned between industrial countries and developing countries. The Rio summit provided basic principles for common global action in the framework of the United Nations.

The enthusiasm of Rio had the backside that there wasn’t enough intensive negotiation about converting the goals, binding terms and financial commitments. Disillusionment quickly followed the euphoria. Important promises were not kept, particularly the resolution of industrial countries to earmark 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product for developmental cooperation as soon as possible. Their share was even reduced.

The other goals of Rio were also missed. Exploiting nature continues almost unchecked. Burdening the atmosphere with climate-damaging gases in the highly developed countries was not reduced. On the contrary, emissions increase at an accelerated speed. The consequences of climate change become drastically obvious. Limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius hardly seems possible. Climate researchers declared this “2 degree Celsius” goal as the “crash barrier” because its consequences could still be controlled.

The signs of climate change are alarming. The arctic ice is melting, the oceans stagnate, become warmer and rise, the permafrost soil gives way (releasing more climate gases) and external weather phenomena increase. These are facts that can be seen all-round, not horror scenarios of nervous conservationists.

This climate development will also intensify the global distribution conflicts. Future generations will have to pay the costs ignored in the calculations for our prosperity. These costs are shifted to the future and to people in distant regions, nature and the environment altogether. The “Millennium Eco-System Assessment” proves the rapid disappearance of nature capital with concrete numbers.

The poorest of the poor will be the first steamrolled by these changes. The people in the poverty- and developing belts of Africa, Asia and Latin America who are not responsible or only tangentially responsible for climate change are massively impacted by these consequences: through extreme weather, desertification, changed rainfall patterns, declining agricultural production and increasing water shortage.

These countries often pay the bill twice since the developed countries massively subsidize their prosperity. Changing the consumption- and production patterns named for the first time in Johannesburg has hardly begun. Consumption is still the first civic duty in the industrial countries. The economy must grow, we are admonished, at any price.

This vicious circle must be broken. The consumption- and prosperity differences between the rich and poor countries and people of this world often manifest in a really perverse way must be cleared away. These differences provoke conflicts, tensions, hatred and blind terror. An alliance against terror will only be successful if built on a positive alliance against poverty and hunger, unemployment and discrimination, intolerance and ideological radicalization. Youths in the cities must be given credible perspectives for their future. This is vital for the slums of developing countries and the urban ghettos of the developed countries.

The three pillars of sustainable development, economic growth, social balance and ecological stability, must be strengthened. This presupposes reaching the development goals resolved 10 years ago at the UN Millennium summit in 2000:

· New perspectives for the 1.5 billion people who must manage with less than a dollar a day;

· Water for the 1.2 billion people without secure access to clean drinking water;

· Food for the 800 million people who starve to death although the well-to-do throw away more food than is needed to feed these 800 million;

· School for all children;

· Developing the rights and possibilities of the women of this world;

· Organizing globalization as a crucial means for removing poverty and underdevelopment, particularly through the abolition of perverse ecological and social subsidies.

These goals could be reached by the year 2015. They must be reached because they are the basis of all peace policy. The political will to use human, financial, social and ecological resources for a global peace policy is crucial. There are positive examples. Threatened “water wars” could be unlikely through investments in sewage treatment in the circulation of water, better water distribution systems and water-saving technologies and better irrigation in agriculture. We need an “early-warning system” for conflicts over water. This is also important for the soil, diversity of species and the earth’s atmosphere. In addition, energy technologies that do not rely on coal, crude oil and natural gas reduce tensions.

Developmental cooperation may not be alms only soothing the bad conscience of the highly developed countries. More than moral responsibility is involved. Developmental cooperation and its resources are investments in a more peaceful, future-sustainable world.

This cooperation will only be successful when the human rights of all citizens of this world are accepted. Cultural diversity and traditional structures must be respected and the identity of people promoted.

A comprehensive reform of the United Nations is indispensable for a comprehensive peace policy in a globalized world. All the mechanisms deepening the gulfs between poor and rich should be combated, not globalization. Restructuring the economic and social councils of the United Nations is very important.

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 3 posted about this article.
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its the end of the world as we know it Friday, Nov. 10, 2006 at 7:48 AM
easy things we can do Now to forestall the coming tide Friday, Nov. 10, 2006 at 9:40 AM
Masai in Africa suffering now Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006 at 12:28 PM

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