The rumbling of the waters of the Elbe, Moldava and the Danube should have sounded like alarm bells in the ears of the Heads of State in Johannesburg. This was not the case.
It seemed at first from the pledges made by the UN at the summit that we had finally awakened to the current ecological crisis caused by man's indescriminate behaviour upsetting the rhythms and and balances of nature: instead, it now seems that not only did the summit fail to produce a strategy to safeguard the Earth but it did not even manage to save itself.
How are we responding to the environmental crisis?
The Johannesburg Summit opened with an alarming prediction from the WHO: if toxic emissions are not cut drastically in the densely populated regions of the world by 2020, in Europe alone 8 million more people will die from respiratory illnesses. Such a warning becomes even more worrying when we consider the fact that it is the children who are most affected by pollution-related illnesses, since their repiratory ducts and their digestive and immune systems are infinitely more vulnerable compared to those of adults. In 2001 pollution killed nearly 5 million children, laying waste to young lives and devastating hopes for the future, particularly in poorer countries.
Johannesburg was innovative only in its promotion of a public/private partnership to facilitate the development of clean industry (highly regarded above all overseas), but the EU has confirmed quite rightly that such business agreements are no substitute for the commitment of governments. Indeed, in the wake of ENRON it is already difficult to trust businesses to manage their accounts independently, so imagine if the future salvation of the planet was at stake!
A summit for national interests
In Johannesburg, as in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago, the Earth Summit was conditioned more by geopolitical considerations and by national interest than by the need to safeguard the future of the planet.
Europe has set itself up as the leader with responsibility for 'green' policy, having established a goal of 15% for renewable energy out of the total energy produced worldwide. In spite of the growing sensitivity demonstrated by European countries toward environmental problems, the objective put forward by the Old World is only seemingly progressive and linked to an obsolete energy strategy since, if we include large hydroelectic plants and the use of biomass (wood and other energy bases) under the banner of 'renewable energy sources', we soon find ourselves up against a false objective. Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency renewable energy sources already account for 14% of the energy produced globally including, however, 2.2% from hydroelectric plants and 9.5% stemming from traditional biomass incineration.
The USA, primary conusmer of energy world-wide and the country with the highest emissions of toxic gasses, having a national energy programme based on gas, petrol and nuclear power, has continued its tradition of staunch obstructionism previously demonstrated at Kyoto, resulting in the exclusion of any kind of obligatory deadline for the reduction of pollutant emissions. It is a well-known fact that the carbon and petrolium industry lobby is hugely powerful on the other side of the Atlantic. It is the support base for Bush, current president of the States, who too preoccupied with thinking up a subterfuge to legitimise the concept of 'preemptive strike' under international law, did not even make an appearance at the Johannesburg summit (nor did his father participate in the Rio summit), and so it was Paula Dobriansky, as representative of the US delegation, who confirmed that in 2006 the American government will set aside 15 billion dollars for development. Such a figure in itself might seem quite high, but proportionally speaking it turns out to be a mere 0.15% of the current GDP, in other words, a contribution 3 times smaller than that of the European countries and half the funds the US provided 10 years ago.
Finally, even developing countries, whilst not openly declaring themselves oil-friendly, have not exactly welcomed European ''ecological" policy because they are still placing their hopes in the discovery of the 'black gold' so as to kick-start development of some type, be it sustainable or otherwise. More generally, it seems that for all five areas tackled in South Africa - energy, water, agriculture, health and biodiversity - there are plenty of conditions and pledges of good behaviour without any imposing of deadlines or sanctions; as often happens in international law, trust is placed precisely in the voluntary nature of agreements and not in their being obligatory.
A missed opportunity
I believe that the Johannesburg summit will be remembered in history as the point in the road where we missed our turning, where really the litigants could have done more to steer the global political economy on to the path to sustainable development, if only because instances of environmental disasters and victims of the poisoning of our habitat should have brought about a more mature and responsible environmental consciousness.
In South Africa not a single delegation went back on its own position, no country ceded way, above all in the field of energy policy: When all is said and done, the only loser has been the environment and therefore, mankind as a whole, as we are an integral part of nature.