By Robert Lalasz and Naomi Greengrass

April 9, 2002—Many observers of the preparatory meetings (or "prepcoms") for August's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg are discouraged by the Summit's emerging priorities, which seem largely to ignore the interconnections among equity, the environment, and consumption practices. In an effort to highlight these linkages, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has just published The Jo'burg Memo: Fairness in a Fragile World, which provides both a critical account of the post-Rio 1992 decade and recommendations for Johannesburg based on the "mutual and intricate relationship of ecology and equity." Three authors of the memo discussed its points and their hopes for the future of sustainable development at this Wilson Center meeting.

The Böll Foundation's Sascha Mueller-Kraenner introduced The Jo'burg Memo by saying that "everyone at the [Third Summit prepcom in New York in March] saw why we need a document like this." He said that the prepcom's 150-page text has sacrificed context and vision for super-specialization. For The Jo'burg Memo, Mueller-Kraenner added, the Böll Foundation asked representatives of governments, nongovernmental organizations, business, and others to think broadly about where the international community has fallen short and how to restore vision and synthetic thinking to the Johannesburg process.

"Marrakesh Trumped Rio"

Wolfgang Sachs, coordinator/editor of The Jo'burg Memo, began his overview by bluntly asserting that there was no substantive reason even to hold the Summit this year. He said that the decade since Rio has seen no progress on the environment and considerable backsliding on global sustainable development. While Rio provoked a number of treaties, conventions, and institutional adjustments (such as the widespread creation of national environment ministries), Sachs said that these moves have created "process without results."

"In essence, Marrakesh (the 1994 agreement that established the World Trade Organization) trumped Rio," said Sachs. A wave of economic globalization, he argued, has largely washed away sustainable gains that could have been made at microeconomic level and has instead promoted a "robber economy" that "has exposed the national treasures of developing countries to the pull of world markets." "In OECD countries," Sachs said, "sustainable development is now a largely forgotten issue."

The Jo'burg Memo, said Sachs, lays out the ideal Johannesburg agenda—one that weights development, equity, and ecology equally. The ecological fragility of the planet is "a historically new situation," said Sachs. "How can we achieve fairness in a finite world?" The Jo'burg Memo calls for curtailment of overconsumption, poverty eradication through a rights-based approach, and new environmental governance institutions that enforce those rights.

Poverty and Power

"There is lots of talk about poverty," said Sachs, "but very little about wealth." And yet overconsumption, he argued, is the largest force for global unsustainability and poverty. The resource claims of the global consumer class, Sachs said, are causing resource conflicts and threatening the one-third of humanity who live directly from nature. "The affluent must move toward a 'resource-lite' style of life," he said, "toward styles of wealth which can be spread across the entire globe without environmental disruption."

In addition, The Jo'burg Memo argues that markets and a needs-based approach can never solve global poverty. "Poverty is not a matter of lack of income, but lack of power," said Sachs. The poor, he said, must have rights to land, water, and access to finance. New global governance institutions—such as a World Environmental Organization, an International Energy Agency, and an International Court of Arbitration—should enforce these rights. And the link between ecology and equity must be forcefully stressed.

Johannesburg, said Sachs, presents an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that livelihoods, poverty reduction, and environmental protection are inextricably linked. "But it's not going to happen in Johannesburg," concluded Sachs.

The Failure of the International System

Ashok Khosla
said that, while the South has much work to do to conserve the environment and reform its governance systems, the North holds the key to global sustainability. He pointed out that, while the international system had pledged $600 billion dollars at Rio for the implementation of Agenda 21, no more than $3 billion of this money has actually been spent. "This is such a massive failure of the international system that we have to ask if we are talking about these issues in a realistic way," Khosla said.

Sustainable development, said Khosla, encompasses both sustainable consumption patterns and production systems. But Khosla argued that the Western model of development—hyperefficiency, reliance on fossil fuels, centralized energy grids—cannot be sustained if applied to the world. In fact, he said, this model is destroying the livelihood base in developing countries. "In India, the forests are gone," he said. "The rivers are gone—you can walk across many riverbeds throughout the year. The soils are gone."

And if the West fails to deal with sustainable development issues, Khosla said, the resultant environmental destruction would lead to massive migration and destabilization. "The sea-level rise and deforestation will lead to the South exporting people to the North on a scale that will dwarf the boat people," said Khosla. While the United States has a "major and historically unique" position to bring about change in development patterns, Khosla said that it has instead abnegated its responsibility. "Instead of advocating SD—sustainable development—[the United States] has achieved FSD—Full Spectrum Dominance," he said.

Governance Recommendations

Hilary French then detailed the three areas of governance recommendations in The Jo'Burg Memo: rights, redirecting markets, and institutional reforms. First, the document stresses the need at Johannesburg to discuss community resource rights—over forests, fisheries, and ecosystems writ large. French pointed to the Convention on Biodiversity and the Aarhus Convention as good models for an overarching convention on such rights. The Convention on Biodiversity (which addresses fair access, equitable sharing of benefits, full and effective participation of local peoples, and prior and informed consent for the harvesting of biological wealth) has the support of many developing world countries, said French. But the United States has refused to become a party.

The Jo'Burg Memo also advocates tax shifts and subsidy removals to make the global marketplace more responsive to sustainability development principles. French said that taxes should shift from labor to the consumption of natural resources, internalizing external environmental costs into pricing. She also argued that removing government subsidies for environmentally-harmful activities (such as fossil-fuel extraction or industrial agriculture) would free up $800 billion to $1 trillion in the first year alone—in contrast to the $650 billion cost of implementing Agenda 21 estimated at Rio. The Fourth WTO Ministerial Conference at Doha made a good start on this, French added, using WTO rules to attack subsidies that promote overfishing. In this vein, she said that multilateral environmental agreements such as Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the Montreal Protocol need to take precedence over WTO rulings.

Finally, French said that The Jo'Burg Memo, stresses corporate accountability and institutional reform. Social responsibility, she said, has proven too lax a strategy for enforcing sustainable corporate behavior. Instead, French argued corporations need to be subject to binding codes through a convention of socially accountable production—a process that should begin at Johannesburg. French also said argued that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) should be transformed into a World Environmental Organization that oversees global environmental governance and the further development of standards and agreements.

Governments are Crucial

In open discussion, Sachs also said that the "Type II" initiatives (voluntary partnerships, instead of the "Type I" government initiatives) now being talked up for Johannesburg should not be used as a pretext for governmental inaction. "The problem now is the absence of international governance," he said, "and Johannesburg is proposing even more absence of such governance!" French added that the "current fashion for multistakeholder initiatives" fails to challenge power relations and thus is doomed to ineffectiveness.

After Rio, Sachs added, UN attempts to gather support for regulating transnational corporations (TNCs) were minimized and then eventually discarded. "We need to create a space where public rights prevail, as in Aarhus," he said. He also criticized development financing initiatives proposed at the recent Monterrey International Conference on Financing for Development for using old and non-participatory models of delivery that also failed to take sustainable development seriously.

"The rich countries are using a social welfare approach to save the WTO, and the same will happen at Johannesburg," Sachs said. "The Summit will pay more attention to saving the free-trade regime as a way of solving poverty. It's a self-defeating approach."

French criticized the United States for recommending sustainable development to other countries "even though people elsewhere see U.S. development as paradigmatically unsustainable." The State Department's lead on U.S. preparations for the Summit, she said, means that this focus on "the other" is institutionalized. Sachs recommended that Europe "forget about the U.S. as long as the Bush administration exists," and make its own selective multilateral compacts to "try out some form of global deal ourselves."