Johannesburg summit: Success or failure?

The recent world summit on sustainable development was either a success or a disappointment, depending on whom you ask.For a clear assessment of the summit’s achievements, it should be measured against what is in fact needed to achieve sustainable development and what was feasible in the current political climate.

No one really needed a global conference to discover that 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit there is still far too much poverty and disease in the world and that some environmental problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and overfishing, have actually got worse since 1992. But because sustainable development embraces a complex array of economic, social and environmental issues, different countries and civil society organisations came to Johannesburg in August 2002 with very different – and sometimes incompatible – agendas. The result was a dauntingly long wish list of priorities, from reducing poverty and alleviating AIDS to reducing trade barriers or addressing global environmental issues. Opponents of business-led globalisation wanted an international legally binding instrument to regulate multinational enterprises, while business leaders wanted acknowledgement of their role as constructive social partners. The carefully negotiated compromises that emerged from this left many participants dissatisfied.

But was the summit meant to satisfy all these different agendas? The UN General Assembly’s mandate for this meeting was to take stock of what the agreements made in Rio have accomplished and identify further measures to implement them. The mandate also called for identifying areas where more effort and action were needed, as well as new challenges and opportunities. The Johannesburg summit was intended to win an understanding of the need for balance among economic, social and environmental concerns and to reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable development. By this definition, the negotiators at Johannesburg fulfilled their mandate.

They restated key commitments and targets, such as halving by the year 2015 the proportion of people living on less than US$1 a day, added a few new ones, such as halving by the year 2015 the population without access to adequate sanitation (currently estimated at 2.4 billion), and hastened the expected pace of others, such as encouraging a more rapid shift to sustainable production and consumption. And they developed a clear and relatively comprehensive Plan of Implementation, describing how the already existing commitments and targets might be met. Moreover, the range of supportive actions (so-called Type II Partnerships) identified by groups of countries, the business community and other civil society actors – in many cases backed up by substantial financial commitments – augurs well for maintaining momentum and moving beyond the actions agreed through the inter-governmental process.

The four-page political declaration adopted at the end of the summit recognised the links between poverty, security and sustainable development; and acknowledged the challenges and opportunities for sustainable development raised by globalisation and the role of partnerships with the private sector and civil society. Above all, the declaration commits signatory governments to implement the concrete steps for progress detailed in the Plan of Implementation. This provides a framework to help achieve the remaining goals from Rio and make further progress towards sustainable development.

Many of its specific targets re-state already agreed aims, but still, the plan was not easy to carve out. Many countries were aware of the limited progress that has been achieved since the Rio Summit and were reluctant to take on any targets, whether old or new, that might not be met. Instead, they focused on the more practical aspects of how they might achieve the existing commitments and ensure that they can implement future sustainable development policies.

The agreement on access to adequate sanitation is an entirely new target and an understandably difficult one because of the heavy financial resources it will require. Renewable energy was another particularly tough nut to crack. The EU and several other countries supported a proposal that 15% of world energy should be sourced from renewables by 2015 but the G77 oil-producing nations and the United States were against. Participants finally agreed to aim to “substantially increase” the global share of renewable energy sources, without setting a measure.

Other commitments include reducing biodiversity loss by 2010; restoring fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015; minimising the effect on human health and the environment of chemical production and use by 2020; starting to implement national strategies for sustainable development by 2005; and approving a US$3 billion replenishment of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The latter featured an agreement to include combating desertification among the environmental projects that the GEF finances (in addition to projects on climate change, biodiversity, persistent organic pollutants, international waters and protection of the ozone layer).

The final litmus test of any international agreement, however, is the actual concrete actions put in place to carry it out. One key channel for achieving the goals laid out at Johannesburg is the Type II Partnerships – international, voluntary agreements for specific concrete initiatives. Such partnerships can include national, state and local governments, NGOs, the private sector and civil society. The OECD has agreed to actively participate in six partnerships – ranging from a partnership for a Globally Harmonised System for Chemicals Classification to one on Children’s Environmental Health Indicators and one on a European Water Initiative.

A number of countries also took advantage of the Johannesburg summit to announce ratification of various multilateral environmental or other sustainable development-related agreements. Russia, China, India and others agreed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and once these commitments are met, the Kyoto Protocol will enter into force. Canada also announced its intention to put a vote on ratification to parliament before the end of the year.

So, the summit was anything but a complete failure. In fact, even the dissatisfied would admit that it was an opportunity for more than 40,000 people from all areas of society, including over 100 heads of state and government, 50 chief executive officers and representatives of more than 500 businesses, 400 trade union representatives and thousands of representatives of NGOs and civil society, to exchange ideas and information on achieving sustainable development, and to strengthen networks among them.

OECD leadership

So what can the OECD and its member countries contribute to this mammoth effort? Leadership is one thing. They can do this by increasing the coherence and integration of their own policies, and taking the necessary steps to overcome obstacles to policy reform. This includes integrating sustainable development concerns into the work of all ministries and ensuring that existing policies do not work against each other. For example, OECD countries are the largest donors of overseas development assistance (ODA), but at the same time protect and subsidise their own national industries, often at the expense of developing country would-be competitors. OECD country support to domestic production – particularly in agriculture, fisheries and energy – amounts to roughly six to seven times the amount of ODA provided to developing countries. Not only do many of these subsidies lead to economic distortions and environmental damage in OECD countries, but together with other barriers to trade they represent a loss of an estimated US$43 billion a year in exports for developing countries.

The OECD is working to identify and establish more coherent policies for sustainable development, and to overcome some of the obstacles – such as the fear of a loss of competitiveness – which block policy reform. But policy prescriptions are not enough. Success boils down to a question of will! For that we depend on political leadership. Here too the OECD plays an important role, helping to reinforce political determination by monitoring country progress towards sustainable development.

The OECD’s highly regarded country surveys help to foster good governance by ensuring accountability in government policies and a sharing of best practices. Soon each OECD economic survey will include a section assessing the country’s sustainable development performance, supplementing the already well-established environmental performance reviews of the OECD. A small step, perhaps, though a giant one if it improves our response to the challenges we face.

©OECD Observer No 234, Ocober 2002

Economic data

GDP growth: -9.8% Q2/Q1 2020 2020
Consumer price inflation: 1.3% Sep 2020 annual
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Unemployment: 7.3% Sep 2020
Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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