Prospects For WSSD
Towards Johannesburg

Klaus Toepfer talks to Geoffrey Lean about the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development

September must witness the formation of a new coalition, an alliance for ‘responsible prosperity’, says Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director. The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg should give birth to a global partnership to carry out concrete and targeted action to put resolutions already agreed by the world community into practice.

The Summit – which marks the 10th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and the 30th of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment – also presages a more recent, and more tragic one. For it will end just a week before the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If it succeeds, Toepfer goes on, it could make the world safer as well as more prosperous.

He brings a unique perspective to the event. As Germany’s environment minister he was an important player at Rio ten years ago. And from 1994-1995 he was Chairman of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the body the Earth Summit set up to monitor the implementation of its decisions. He is thus the only person to have headed both of the main United Nations organizations concerned with the environment and sustainable development.

He cites Jan Pronk, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to the Johannesburg Summit, in calling for ‘a coalition for sustainable development for humanity and civilization’, adding: ‘We must come to a coalition for responsible prosperity for all, a coalition for the fight against hunger and desperation and environmental destruction.

‘Responsible prosperity,’ he explains, ‘means both fighting poverty and changing unsustainable patterns of consumption. Of course we must make a summit on sustainable development a summit against poverty. But unsustainable consumption patterns are a reason for poverty in other parts of the world because we are exporting environmental burdens. The most obvious symptom of this is climate change: carbon dioxide emissions mainly arise from developed countries, but the impacts – such as desertification, sea-level rise, and extreme weather conditions – are mainly to be found in developing ones. The welfare of developed countries is thus being heavily subsidized by developing ones, and by future generations.

‘Prosperity in developed countries alone is not always responsible, and nor is the economic situation of developing countries. Something has to change in both.’

Similarly, there can be no lasting economic development unless the natural resources and services provided by the environment are protected. ‘Environmental services are more and more the bottleneck for economic development, and so to integrate the two is not a matter of luxury or nostalgia, but of investment. Without better and more stable environmental services you cannot arrive at reliable economic development.

Value of diversity
'It is also very necessary to underline the high value of diversity. We need cultural diversity as a stabilizing factor in the process of globalization. The more we are globalizing, the more necessary it is to have respect for regional identities. This diversity is a strong basis for tolerance, openness and dialogue. There is also a very intense positive correlation between cultural diversity and biodiversity.

‘This is a very necessary component for the Summit. Sustainable development needs diversities of culture, spiritual values and biodiversity. Without respect for the creation of God and the values of indigenous people, you cannot arrive at a peaceful and stable world.’

All these themes – and the fact that the Summit also marks the 30th anniversary of the international community’s decision to establish UNEP – are brought together in the organization’s slogan for Johannesburg: 30 years UNEP: Environment for Development – Planet, People, Prosperity.

Johannesburg, Toepfer continues, ‘must be the Summit of implementation of existing declarations. We have very important and very good declarations, first and foremost the Earth Summit’s Agenda 21. Now it is high time to implement them, with a targeted, benchmarked timetable-orientated action programme.

‘It must be a summit of concrete actions, reliable and accountable, with the aim of overcoming poverty through investment in jobs, using the “interest rate" on nature’s capital (but not the stock itself), and changing unsustainable consumption patterns in the developed countries.’

Investment for high returns
‘A lot of people believe that there must be a global deal, with contributions from both developed and developing countries. Economic cooperation is not a matter of charity but of investment, and investment with a very high return. It is also investment in a peaceful world. So when the developed world provides resources this should not be seen as “aid” per se but as investments it is making in its own interest, as well as in those of developing countries.’

Developing countries have much they could bring to that deal in return for such cooperation. ‘The remaining biodiversity, which is mainly in developing countries, is of the highest importance for economic development in the future. So they bring this asset. They also bring the assets of the human capital of their young populations, indigenous knowledge not protected by “property rights", cultural and spiritual values, carbon sinks – and a lot of others – to this deal. And they must also bring good national governance, the fight against corruption, and the fight against tension, conflict, wars and civil wars.’

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development – an initiative by African leaders to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development with financial help from developed countries – is a ‘very good example’ of the kind of regional partnership that could be integrated into such a global deal.

The deal would have to be linked with concrete commitments by such stakeholders as governments, private business and foundations. ‘One wonderful example’ was Ireland’s commitment to raise its aid to the United Nations’ target of 0.7 per cent of its GNP by 2007. He hopes ‘others will also come with clear timetables’.

Industry should also offer concrete targets. ‘For example, can we come to a commitment in Johannesburg that by the year 2007 we could have a world without leaded gasoline? Or that, by 2010, we could cut the leakage of water in African cities from over 50 per cent to 25 per cent? More and more business leaders are now stressing that the gaps between rich and poor and humanity and nature must be bridged if global markets and prosperity are to be assured and this must be developed as part of the coalition.’

Realistic optimism
Water would provide one important focus for the Summit, he continued, as it was linked both to the need to eradicate poverty and to many issues high on the environmental agenda. Some 6,000 children die every day from waterborne disease, while water is linked to such priority topics as climate change, contamination by chemicals, flooding and the preservation of watersheds, and biodiversity, not least in wetlands.

Like the Stockholm and Rio Conferences before it, the Summit would also have to decide how its decisions would be monitored. ‘We have to ask ourselves what the best administrative and governance structure would be to increase the probability of implementation and to make the monitoring reliable and honest.’ UNEP’s Governing Council had taken a step forward on the governance of the environmental part of sustainable development at its meeting in Cartagena in February.

In all, says Toepfer, the results of the Summit should be in three layers: ‘a political declaration; a concrete targeted action programme; and concrete commitments to projects.’

He concludes: ‘I believe in realistic optimism for a very important summit, with a very relevant outcome concentrated on making this world safer and better. UNEP and I personally will do our utmost to contribute to bringing this about’


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report