From Rio to Johannesburg:
Awareness, Sluggish Response
DC February 28, 2002 - This August,
ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio, the United Nations
will again host a global meeting, the World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg. The World Summit provides the
world's leaders a historic chance to strike a new deal for
an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable
world-a chance they cannot afford to miss.
of the threats to the Earth's ecosystems has grown since Rio,
but in many cases, our response to this increased awareness
has been sluggish. We are still far from ending the economic
and environmental marginalization that afflicts billions of
people. The divide between rich and poor is widening in many
countries, undermining social and economic stability, while
pressures on the world's natural systems continue to mount.
This is the first in a series of Worldwatch issue briefs to
be published leading up to the World Summit. It describes
key lessons learned over the past decade about selected environmental
and social challenges, the goals set for addressing those
challenges, and progress, if any, in achieving those goals.
the world learned: In 1996, the scientific panel set up
by the United Nations reported that a "discernible human
influence" was evident on a changing global climate.
By 2001, the group was more definitive: "most of the
observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have
been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."
goals were set: At the Earth Summit, 170 nations agreed
to voluntary reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990
levels. By mid-decade, negotiations were underway for binding
reductions in industrial nations, to 6-8 percent below 1990
levels, leading to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Meanwhile,
the U.N. climate panel said that climate stabilization would
require emissions reductions of 60-80 percent.
happened: Carbon emissions globally increased by 9 percent
between 1992 and 2001. In the U.S., they increased by 18 percent.
The United States withdrawal from the Protocol in 2001, and
President Bush's 2002 decision to rely on voluntary, efficiency-driven
measures to control emissions, will likely result in further
increases in U.S. emissions by 2010.
the world learned: The World Conservation Union "Red
List" surveys reported at mid-decade that 13 percent
of fish, 11 percent of mammals, 10 percent of amphibians,
8 percent of reptiles and 4 percent of birds, were in immediate
danger of extinction. Species losses, estimated at 100 to
1000 times the preindustrial rate, led biologists in the 1990s
to describe the contemporary era as a mass extinction, the
first in 65 million years. Habitat disruption was cited as
the leading cause of the declines.
goals were set: Over the decade, 182 countries became
parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, one of
the crowning achievements of the Earth Summit. These countries
promised to abide by broad guidelines for biodiversity protection,
and to develop national strategies for doing so. National
governments also made separate promises over the decade to
protect important habitat, especially forests.
happened: The two richest sources of biodiversity-forests
and coral reefs-both suffered increased damage in the 1990s.
Forested area, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization,
contracted by 2.2 percent in the 1990s (a conservative estimate,
in part because it includes habitat-poor plantation forests).
And the area of coral reefs regarded as seriously degraded
rose from 10 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 2000. Meanwhile,
only 38 percent of parties to the Biodiversity Convention
have submitted national conservation strategies.
the world learned: Policymakers and activists began to
question the heavy dependence on dams, irrigation canals,
and other large water supply projects. In their place, researchers
developed the concept of integrated water management, combining
attention to securing supplies with increasing water efficiency,
meeting basic human needs for water, and giving water its
proper cultural, economic, and environmental value.
goals were set: Agenda 21, the action plan that emerged
from the 1992 Earth Summit, along with declarations emerging
from the 1994 and 1998 U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development
meetings, all called for the adoption of integrated water
management and for greater attention to the water needs of
happened: Advances in providing access to clean water
and sanitation were impressive in absolute terms, but barely
kept pace with population growth; more than 1.1 billion people
still lack access to clean drinking water. And water is still
widely mismanaged: aquifers, for example, are over pumped
in major farming regions to the point that sustained production
of as much as 10 percent of the global grain supply is now
at risk. A growing number of major rivers, including the Yellow,
Indus, Ganges, and Colorado, now run dry at some point each
year. And water planners widely ignore environmental, cultural,
and economic values in water planning, leading to waste and
degradation on a broad scale.
the world learned: Malnutrition involves more than a lack
of calories: deficiencies of vitamins and minerals can produce
mental retardation, blindness, and other developmental problems.
And excessive consumption of sugar and fat, a rapidly growing
form of poor nutrition, leads to obesity and increased risk
of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic ailments.
Meanwhile, nutritionists recognized that hunger, the most
acute form of malnutrition, is often caused by poverty, not
simply by insufficient food supplies.
goals were set: At the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996,
185 countries and the European Union pledged to cut in half
the number of people who are hungry by 2015.
happened: By the Food and Agriculture Organization's own
reckoning, the number of hungry people in the world has decreased
by 6 million per year since the 1996 Food Summit, far short
of the annual reduction of 22 million needed to meet the goal
for 2015. Meanwhile, roughly half of adults in many industrial
countries are overweight, and many developing countries saw
sharp increases in the overweight population. Partly as a
result, diabetes cases rose fivefold globally, to 150 million,
between 1985 and 2000.
the world learned: Good health requires not only access
to medical care, but also a robust natural and social environment.
An estimated 80 percent of all disease in developing countries,
for example, is caused by consumption of contaminated water.
And air pollution is estimated to cause 5 percent of the world's
deaths each year.
goals were set: Health goals spelled out in Agenda 21
include universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation,
50 to 70 percent reductions in deaths from diarrhea and 95
percent reductions in measles deaths by 1995.
happened: Deaths from four of the world's six leading
killer infectious diseases, including diarrhea and measles,
declined over the decade, although by far less than targeted.
These gains were more than offset by the sixfold increase
in deaths from AIDS. Water and sanitation became more widely
available, as noted, but more than 1.1 billion people still
do not have access to clean water, and 2.4 billion do not
have access to adequate sanitation.
the world learned: Over the decade, researchers showed
that education was a high-leverage investment area essential
to a sustainable development agenda. Children who go to school
generally have improved health and nutritional levels and
lower poverty rates over their lifetime. And educated girls
are likely to have fewer children and more economic opportunities.
goals were set: In 1990, 155 nations at the UNESCO-sponsored
World Conference on Education for All pledged to provide universal
access to primary education, a halving of the global adult
illiteracy rate by 2000, and a closing of the gender gap in
literacy. A commitment to basic education was endorsed at
10 other major international conferences in the 1990s, including
the Earth Summit.
happened: The number of unenrolled children globally fell
from 127 million in 1990 to 113 million in 1998, and the share
of the world's adults that could not read or write also declined,
from 24.8 percent to 20.6 percent. Nevertheless, these achievements
fall well short of the goals set in 1990: one of every six
adults still cannot read or write, and the number of illiterate
women increased over the decade.
the world learned: The World Bank and other international
entities embraced a definition of poverty that looks beyond
lack of income to include other essentials for human well-being,
especially health and education. But the income measure of
poverty is still relevant, and sobering: 2.8 billion people
live on less than 2 dollars per day.
goals were set: World leaders committed themselves to
reducing poverty, and the extreme disparities between the
rich and poor. In 1998, a joint report by the OECD, United
Nations, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank pledged
to cut income poverty by half by 2015, and to reduce child
and maternal mortality, among other goals.
happened: The share of the world's people living on a
dollar or less per day fell from 29 percent in 1990 to 24
percent in 1998. Still, 1.2 billion remain under this threshold.
Mortality of children under 5 fell from 86 deaths per 1000
children in 1990 to 78 deaths in 1999. Inequality remained
the glaring norm: the richest billion receive 78% of world
income. Child mortality was more than 19 times greater in
low-income than in wealthy countries in 1999.
Consume and Dispose Economies
the world learned: Global consumption of metals, minerals,
wood, plastic, and other materials increased some 2.4-fold
between 1960 and 1995. The "ecological footprint,"
a conceptual tool that emerged at mid-decade to provide a
rough measure of the environmental impact of consumption of
materials, food and fuel, showed that 3 Earths would be needed
to sustain the entire world at an American level of consumption.
What goals were set: A growing body of researchers
proposed cost-effective strategies for reducing materials
use by up to 90 percent in industrial countries. Imaginative
suggestions included capturing and reusing factory wastes,
designing durables such as copiers and automobiles to be remanufactured,
holding producers perpetually responsible for the materials
they send into the world, and where possible, meeting consumer
needs with services such as mass transit, rather than materials-intensive
goods, such as cars.
What happened: Recycling rates increased for household
disposables in many countries, but stagnated at 30-50 percent
in industrial countries. Declines in materials use per person,
and in material needed to produce a dollar of GNP, were encouraging,
but total materials use and extraction of virgin materials
continued to climb. A treaty to eliminate use of 10 toxic,
long-lived chemicals, and to reduce emissions of two industrial
byproducts, was completed in 2001, but has not yet entered