Tribune leader, 29 May 1992
The United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, which opens next week in Rio de Janeiro, is set to be one of the biggest political jamborees of all time: no one in politics or the media can resist the idea of a meeting to sort out the fate of the planet.
But it is unlikely that the Earth Summit will come up with the goods. On global warming, the central environmental issue at UNCED, the governments of the industrialised and the developing countries have completely different priorities, with no sign that they are anywhere near a workable and substantive consensus on what needs to be done.
For the governments of the industrialised countries, UNCED is essentially a matter of public relations. They all want to give their voters, worried about the environment, the impression that they are "doing something" about global warming. But, also for electoral reasons, none of them will agree to a radical cut in their own countries' use of fossil fuels, which is the single most effective thing that could be done about the "greenhouse effect". (The United States and Britain go even further: they won’t agree to any significant action on carbon dioxide emission reductions.)
Far better, think the powers-that-be in the industrialised countries, to let their voters keep their high-energy-consumption lifestyles and to concentrate instead on forcing the developing world not to cut down forests or follow the industrialised countries' model of development.
Understandably, the governments of the developing countries do not see why they should take the lion’s share of responsibility for action to combat global warming, particularly when the rich countries caused the problem in the first place.
There is a widespread feeling that, after a decade of unremitting austerity imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a "cure" for indebtedness, the poor countries are now being asked to forgo forever their dreams of affluence. It is hardly surprising that Third World Governments want Rio to reassert the importance of development and the need for global redistribution of wealth and power.
The upshot of all this is that UNCED will probably come up with little more than vague declarations that development is very important and that everyone ought to do all they can to preserve forests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After Rio, it will be back to business as usual.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the Earth Summit as a complete waste of time. Even if it produces nothing but hot air, the simple fact that it is happening has already given a tangible boost to the public profile of the issues it was set up to address. That can only be welcome. Throughout the industrialised world, global development and the burgeoning environmental crisis are generally out of the political limelight, a concern only for experts and a small group of activists. The complacent consensus among politicians and pundits - apparently borne out by events - is that elections in the industrialised countries are decided by taxation policies and the voters’ sense of economic well-being.
In the normal course of things, politicians steer clear of suggesting that the consumer society as we now know it is dependent on the pauperisation of the Third World and incompatible with the survival of the planet.
This is true of left-wing as well as right-wing parties. Labour might be better than the lories on the big environmental issues and development (it would be hard to be worse), but it remains dangerously cautious and ambiguous. At the election, Labour offered no more on global warming than a promise to stick to the EC's target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the end of the decade.
Despite an undoubted enthusiasm for public transport, the party has said nothing to suggest that it wants dramatic reductions in car use. Its energy policy, despite gestures in the direction of renewable sources of energy, remains based on fossil fuels. On development, Labour’s commitment to increase aid to the 0.9 per cent of gross domestic product recommended by the UN was honourable but, frankly, a drop in the ocean. The scale of the problems of global warming and development are such, however, that the politicians in the developed world win have to grasp the net-or later - and the sooner the better. If all the hype surrounding UNCED increases the pressure on the politicians to cease beating about the bush, it will have been worth it.