Nearly three years after the June 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, progress in implementing Agenda 21 is mixed at best.While the post-Rio period has been marked by unfulfilled promises on many fronts and continued conflict between developed and developing countries, the third meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which was held in New York from 11-28 April 1995, demonstrated that despite the decline of official development assistance and the lack of new and additional financial resources, the journey to sustainable development is underway.
"Many people speak about the loss of political momentum after Rio. But I would urge you to see the follow up to Rio in perspective," noted UN Under-Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development Nitin Desai in his opening remarks to the Commission. "A great deal is happening in this Commission and in other bodies. And precisely because sustainable development" is not one area of development policy but an approach to all development policy, the follow up to Rio is dispersed amongst a host of organizations at the national and international level. The challenge ... is to keep these dispersed developments under review."
For the first time in its three-year history, it appeared as though the CSD has succeeded in establishing itself as an essential part of the process of reviewing Agenda 21 implementation. The CSD, under its new Chairperson, Henrique Cavalcanti (Brazil), made considerable progress by revising its format to encourage greater discussion and dialogue, rather than the traditional UN-style "general debate
National and Local Experiences The Commission heard numerous examples of practical programmes being undertaken or initiated to respond to the challenge of sustainable development. Henry Aryamanya-Mugisha, Uganda"s Director of Environmental Protection, described Uganda"s National Environment Action Plan. "This plan identifies environmental problems and provides a framework to integrate environmental concerns into national development plans." The government also requires environmental education in school curricula, and is preparing action plans for water, wetlands, forests, wildlife, biodiversity, agriculture, mining, climate change, population and desertification.
John Stevens, Assistant Secretary in the United Kingdom"s Department of the Environment, described the UK"s Strategy for Sustainable Development, which looks at both economic development and environmental protection toward the year 2012. "Some environmental groups were disappointed that the Strategy did not set new targets or policies," Stevens noted. "However, the Strategy"s alternative approach is to set targets that the government is committed to achieve." The Strategy identifies new indicators for sustainable development and has fostered the development of strategies on climate change, biodiversity, waste reduction and air quality.
Bolivia"s approach to sustainable development includes the establishment of a national system of protected areas, promoting conservation of wildlife and germplasm, and managing water basins. "Unsustainable forestry practices have resulted from an inadequate institutional model for timber resource exploitation," explained Alejandro Mercado, Bolivia"s Under-Secretary for Development Strategy. "Among actions to be taken is a new forest law that comprehensively addresses forest ecology." Other examples of national and local initiatives that were described during the course of the meeting included:
Zimbabwe"s "Clean, Green and Profitable" programme that aims to assist selected industries to develop their managerial and technical caacity to improve environmental performance.
Metro Manila"s Resource Recovery Program that organizes junk shop owners into environment cooperatives. This local initiative run by local people with local resources helps to reduce the [more] pressure on dump sites by 60 to 70%.
Nepal"s Community Forestry Project that is engaged in the reforestation of severely eroded areas of Nepal through the establishment of community managed forests.
Cajamarca, Peru and the other cities around the world that have put together their own local Agenda 21s.
"All these discussions have convinced me that political will to achieve sustainable development is not fading away," commented former CSD Chairperson Klaus Topfer, the German Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Building and Urban Development. "What is now urgently needed is action and implementation intensively backed through partnership of developed and developing countries."
Multi-Year Thematic Programme of Work
During the course of the session, the Commission also examined the second cluster of issues according to its multi-year thematic programme of work. The sectoral issues that were considered included: integrated land management; forests; desertification and drought; sustainable mountain development; sustainable agriculture and rural development; biological diversity and biotechnology. The cross-sectoral issues included: trade, environment and sustainable development; combating poverty; changing consumption and production patterns; demographic dynamics; financial resources and mechanisms; and technology transfer, among others. The discussions on these issues noted areas where there has been significant progress since Rio as well as the areas where there have been retreats.
Forests: This is one issue where there has been considerable progress since Rio -- if progress is measured in words rather than actions. The numerous intergovernmental initiatives on forests that have been held over the past two years have established a degree of discussions between developed and developing countries, laying the groundwork for the CSD"s establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests.
The objective of this Panel is to promote multi-disciplinary action at the international level consistent with the UNCED Statement of Forest Principles. The main categories of issues to be considered by the Panel include: implementation of the UNCED decisions related to forests at the national and international levels; international cooperation in financial assistance and technology transfer; scientific research, forest assessment and development of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management; trade and environment related to forest products and services; and a review of international organizations and multilateral institutions and instruments to develop a clearer view on the work being carried out under existing instruments.
While most delegates supported the establishment of this Panel, both developed and developing countries expressed concern. "The Panel needs to be well focused in its work. The Earth cannot afford for the Panel to become a sterile debating forum in which well known positions are endlessly repeated," warned Marius Enthoven of the European Commission. "This Panel must operate in an open-ended transparent way and wider consultations must encourage participation by all countries," urged Adam Delaney of Papua New Guinea.
Some NGO representatives complained that the establishment of this Panel may be too late. It will still be another two years before the Panel reports its finding to the CSD and this could provide governments with another excuse for inaction. Bill Mankin Šof the Global Forest Policy Project is worried that trade in forest products will dominate the discussion. "There is uncertainty on how the panel will choose its issues. If they choose wrong, it could be detrimental to the world"s forests." According to Mankin, the top priorities of the Panel should be to examine the underlying causes of deforestation and how to address them. The Panel should also complete an independent review of all forest-related institutions and instruments to determine what is missing and where there is overlap. Phasing out leaded gasoline: One year after Carol Browner, the Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, came to the CSD and called for a global phase out of lead in gasoline, the Commission followed suit. "This may be the first concrete action that countries have taken at the CSD," noted Jared Blumenfeld of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Commission called upon all countries to consider and all interested countries to develop action plans with a view to phase out or reduce the use of lead in gasoline. Countries should inform the CSD of their progress in 1996. Donor countries and international financial institutions should assist developing countries in the financing and transfer of relevant technologies, knowledge and experience in this area.
Changing Production and Consumption Patterns: The Commission also adopted a work programme on changing production and consumption patterns. "The task of changing such patterns is a very complex one, if we consider that the present imbalances in the world were generated a long time ago. The major responsibility for the continued deterioration of the environment are the unsustainable patterns of production and consumption prevailing in industrialized countries," stated Gustavo Krause, Brazil"s Minister of Environment, Water Resources and the Amazon.
The CSD"s new work programme includes: identifying policy implications of projected trends in consumption and production patterns; assessing the impact of changes in developed countries on developing countries; evaluating the effectiveness of policy measures intended to change production and consumption patterns; eliciting time-bound commitments from countries; and revising guidelines for consumer protection. "The adoption of the work programme on changing production and consumption patterns confirms that this issue is at the heart of the work of the Commission," said CSD Chair Henrique Cavalcanti.
Financial Resources and Mechanisms: "One of the continuing areas of concern remains the financing of sustainable development aimed at supporting national efforts in developing countries and economies in transition," commented Cavalcanti. "Much disappointment was expressed with regard to the need for new and additional resources in terms of ODA, which has declined both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GNP." In fact, as many developing countries noted, average ODA in 1990 was 0.35%, but in 1993 that average declined to 0.29%.
While recognizing the decline in ODA levels, developed countries continue to place focus on the need to improve the use of existing resources and consider innovative financial Šmechanisms. The Group of 77 has noted that while re-inventing new ideas on resources mobilization are good, they cannot replace commitments to realize ODA targets. The European Union called for greater consideration of the role of private investors. Developing countries, including the Republic of Korea, India and Colombia, on the other hand, expressed concern about the limits and volatility of private sector resources, which are often concentrated in a small group of middle-income countries and a small number of sectors.
Although the CSD intersessional working group on finance made progress in discussing innovative mechanisms for financing the implementation of Agenda 21, including the use of tradeable carbon dioxide emissions permits, a tax on air transport, the Tobin Tax on international financial transactions and debt-for-sustainable development swaps, the CSD"s debate inevitably returns to ODA targets and the lack of "new and additional" financial resources. Given the current economic climate in the industrial countries, it is unlikely that there will be short-term progress on this front.
Rights of Farmers and Indigenous People: One issue that continues to affect both the CSD and the Conference of the Parties (COP) for the Convention on Biological Diversity is how to recognize and measure the value of indigenous knowledge. Malaysia and other developing countries argue for compensation and protection of farmers" intellectual property rights. Developed countries are largely in agreement that the CSD is not the forum for the discussion of this issue, which emerged during discussions on forests, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and biotechnology. They believe that the Biodiversity COP is the proper forum, if this issue is to be discussed at all. As a result of this persistent North-South split, the CSD was unable to move forward on this contentious issue.
The final decision adopted by th CSD welcomes the decision of the Biodiversity COP to include in their medium-term programme consideration of the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities. The CSD also notes that it would be desirable that future work on the protection of traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant to conservation and sustainable use should be coordinated with the relevant bodies.
Challenges for the Future
The CSD has also proven to be a catalyst for policy action. Among other things, the CSD has: motivated numerous government-sponsored meetings and workshops related to the implementation of Agenda 21; fostered coordination on sustainable development within the UN system; helped to defuse much of the resistance to national reporting that was evident in Rio; and galvanized NGO and major group activities and action aimed at sustainable development at the international, national and local levels.
Yet, despite these gains there is still room for improvement. The CSD must become the place for meaningful dialogue on sustainable development. Delegates must come prepared Što listen, learn and talk with each other, not at each other. The CSD must give more attention to the key linkages between environment and development issues. There is a need for greater public awareness about the work of the CSD. The challenge ahead is for those governments who are truly committed to the process to mobilize and invest the time and energy needed to rekindle the political momentum that is in danger of being lost. The CSD must find ways to spotlight and reward those who blaze the trail.
Pamela Chasek is an editor of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin.