May 14, 2002 – There are now fewer than four months to the Earth Summit – the first major summit dealing with sustainable development since Rio in 1992. Despite some important achievements, Rio failed to deliver the real changes necessary to protect the environment for future generations. Since then, political will has waned, corporate influence has grown and the poorest have suffered. Will the 2002 Earth Summit succeed where the 1992 Earth Summit failed?

Not if the USA gets its way.

The Bush administration has made it clear that it does not want any new global agreements at the Summit. It is even trying to unravel some of the progress gained over the last decade. For example it wants to restrict the use of the precautionary principle in decision making. The principle has been at the centre of confrontation between the USA and the EU over restrictions on hormone treated beef and GM food.

This briefing outlines the major issues for the Earth Summit, and the politics that may make the talks collapse.

Earth Summit: Major Issues
Corporate accountability: Together with other environment, development and labour groups, Friends of the Earth wants the summit to secure an international agreement on legally binding corporate accountability.

The treaty would

  • Guarantee communities a legal right of redress for activities that adversely affect them, as well as rights to prior consultation, against displacement and for compensation or reparation.
  • Guarantee ndividuals and communities rights over the resources they need to enjoy a healthy and sustainable life, including common property resources such as forests.
  • Place a duty on directors of corporations to take account of social and environmental factors when taking business decisions
  • Require corporations to meet best environmental, social, labour and human rights standards wherever they operate.

The USA is set against any legally binding framework on corporate accountability. The European Commission would prefer to promote voluntary measures. However, the Commission is under pressure from the European Parliament and others to push for legally binding agreements. The UK Government is not warm to a new Treaty either but will be under increasing pressure as the negotiations on the Earth Summit progress. The abject failure of OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which are voluntary have undermined the credibility of agreements in this area which do not have a legal foundation.

The G77 countries potentially have most to gain from a Treaty on corporate accountability, but are not united in their approach to the idea. Some may fear that a Treaty might be used as an excuse to deny them access to developed country markets, others may fear that a Treaty might expose bad practice by their domestic business sector or by their politicians and state institutions.

Oil producing nations – especially Saudi Arabia – do not want energy to become a major issue at the Summit. They are supported in this by the USA, which seems intent on deleting any mention of the Kyoto Treaty. The EU and others are keen to see progress in developing renewable energy, especially in delivering energy to communities who do not have access to electricity. Friends of the Earth wants targets and timetables for the rapid deployment of renewable energy and the phasing out of international and domestic fossil fuel subsidies. Action on climate change and a shift from fossil fuels to renewables will be one of the key tests of whether the Earth Summit has been a success or a failure.

Trade will be a major issue at the Earth Summit, with Northern Governments in particular promoting the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO’s) liberalising agenda. Many environment and development groups believe that neo-liberal economic theory – the world’s dominant economic model – is unsustainable. Instead, Governments should seek to increase economic diversity and ensure that states retain necessary powers over their domestic economies. They should reject the strait-jacket of export-led development. The impact of trade liberalisation on inequality, inequitable consumption levels, food security and safety, environmental protection and the status of multilateral environmental agreements should be priority concerns.

This issue is one which divides Governments and civil society. The trade issue which causes the greatest disagreement is agriculture. Trade liberalisation for agriculture threatens the livelihoods of subsidence farmers in developing countries but also the livelihoods of small farmers in the UK and other developed countries. Sustainable Consumption and Production Developed countries are responsible for most of the environmental and developmental problems faced by the world as a result of the unsustainable production and consumption patterns of the last two hundred years. Progress in tackling these issues since the Rio Earth Summit 10 years ago has been slow.

Developing countries naturally expect developed countries to take action before they commit themselves pursue economic growth in a way which does not break environmental limits. EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said in February: “we cannot keep coming back from world gatherings with impressive commitments and fine words that we then leave in the corner of our offices to gather dust. Our implementation deficit will quickly turn into a credibility gap…”. Developed countries must make solid commitments at a domestic and at an international level before the Earth Summit, including timetables, targets and finance. Without the Earth Summit may be little more than an expensive photo opportunity for world leaders.

But the omens are not good. At the last preparatory meeting held in New York in April, Governments failed to deliver on the priority task for the meeting to produce a ‘Programme of Action’. This was meant to include commitments to action, identify barriers to progress and ways of removing them, and also agree necessary financial support. Work on this will now continue at the next Preparatory Meeting (27th May – 7th June, Bali).

Other Issues
Other issues to be discussed at the Earth Summit include:

  • water,
  • fisheries,
  • poverty reduction,
  • forests,
  • environmental governance, and chemicals.

Friends of the Earth’s Objectives for the Earth Summit
Corporate accountability
A legally-binding international treaty which requires international companies, wherever they operate, to adopt best practice and to be accountable for their environmental and social damage to citizens and communities Trade and food The promotion of food security, food sovereignty and non-intensive agriculture are key issues that governments must commit to addressing through the United Nations. The Earth Summit should agree that international environmental and social treaties should not be subject to free trade rules and should take precedence over them. The Earth Summit should not promote the WTO’s controversial trade-liberalising agenda and instead should map out a path towards new and sustainable economies. Climate Recognise “carbon debt” – industrialised countries have a historical responsibility to reduce emissions and provide adequate funds to reduce the vulnerability of affected communities; Mandate negotiators in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process to define dangerous climate change, accelerate the next round of emissions reductions and move towards a system of safe, global per capita emissions limits; Establish targets and timetables for the rapid deployment of renewable energy and the phase out of international and domestic fossil fuel subsidies. Forests and biodiversity Create a robust mechanism for establishing certification of legality with independent verification. There are precedents for this, such as the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Agree that consumer countries must make it illegal to import illegally sourced timber products.

Briefing on corporate accountability: Friends of the Earth International’s press releases on the Earth Summit.
Including the outcome of the most recent preparatory meeting held in New York between 25th March and 7th April. The most important documents are three papers based on the draft chairman’s paper from a previous preparatory meeting. See ‘comments on chairman’s paper – Part I, Part II, and Part III.

27th May to 7th June – Ministerial Preparatory Meeting in Bali.This meeting will complete the agenda for the Earth Summit as well as agree a programme of action.
26 August – 4th September – the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

FoE Media Unit 020 7566 1649 (24 hours)
Matt Phillips, Corporates Campaigner 020 7566 1660
Mike Childs, Earth Summit Coordinator 020 7490 0237

For a copy of FoE EWNI’s media pack on the earth summit, contact the press office: 020 7566 1649