U.S. missed opportunity at Johannesburg summit

The World Summit on Sustainable Development concludes in Johannesburg, South Africa today, as participating nations have reached agreements on some of the issues the summit was convened to consider. Attended by a total of 21,000 delegates sent by 190 nations, the 10-day summit produced little measurable progress on such issues as economic development in developing countries or environmental degradation. The summit was intended to further resolve many of the issues discussed in the first “Earth summit” at Kyoto, Japan, in 1992, but the United States continued to oppose measures that would effect any meaningful improvements in global poverty or the condition of the environment.

President George W. Bush clearly illustrated his antipathy for the summit with his absence, as he was one of only a few world leaders who did not attend. In his place, Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell, who will address the summit today, well after most heads of state have left Johannesburg. In addition to the absence of President Bush, the United States delegation further discouraged the summit from making any real progress by opposing many of the reasonable proposals that had otherwise broad support.

The European Union delegation had been insisting on specific targets for the use of renewable resources, but in order to secure the Bush administration’s support for the concept in general, the European Union abandoned this requirement. Originally, the proposal had called for each nation to increase its use of renewable resources such as wind and solar power to 15 percent of total world output by an agreed date. Yvon Slingenburg, a senior member of the E.U. delegation, stated that the European Union “would have preferred to have a target andÖa timeline,” but were unable to secure either in response to the United States’ opposition. Instead, the European Union will seek to secure an agreement among a coalition of participating nations. The only other developed nations critical of the timeline were Australia and Japan.

The United States further isolated itself as one of few remaining nations to oppose the original Kyoto Treaty as Russia announced it will ratify the treaty, perhaps within a year. Russia’s ratification will ensure that the treaty is implemented by other signatory nations, as this requires the participation of nations responsible for producing 55 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, based on 1990 levels. The Kyoto treaty requires developed nations to reduce their total output of carbon and greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2012, and 87 nations have already ratified it. Among these participating nations are all 15 members of the European Union, Japan and even China, which as a developing nation was not required to abide. Australia and Canada have not yet ratified the treaty, although Canada has promised to send it to parliament for consideration.

Because of the United States opposition, the summit was only marginally successful. Although the Bush administration did support a proposal to reduce the number of people without sanitation in half by 2015 and another to reduce the loss of endangered animals and plants, many of the other nations criticized the United States for opposing any real progress. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan stated that all nations must work together “under the same rules,” while Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain said Kyoto must be supported by “all of us.” International aid organizations were also critical of the summit, as Oxfam characterized it as providing “crumbs for the poor,” and the environmental group Friends of the Earth stated it was “not satisfactory.”

The Bush administration objected to many of the measures because they would be detrimental to the economy of the United States, which is the same objection it had to the original Kyoto Treaty. President Bush has said that the Kyoto Treaty would cost the United States $400 billion and 4.9 million jobs. However, without agreeing to specific increases in the use of renewable resources, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions will increase by 9.5 to 13 percent by 2012.

As with the Kyoto Treaty, the United States has not only refused to assume the leadership role the international community is demanding from it, it is also actively discouraging other nations from making any real progress. As the Johannesburg summit closes, the pattern of the Bush administration’s approach to global environmental agreements is becoming evident. Other nations are willing to offer generous compromises just to appease the United States, which is often among the only holdouts to many of the proposals. The international community is learning that if real progress is to be made, it must act without the support of the United States, which missed another opportunity to participate in formulating an effective response to global environmental concerns.