Socialist Worker

Earth Summit

World leaders meet in South Africa, while poverty and global warming rise. Paul McGarr argues the summit will not end the suffering

Issue No. 1815

ANOTHER SUMMIT, and more claims from government leaders that they want to tackle world poverty and global warming. But as the delegates meet in the South African city of Johannesburg, they are likely to entrench the same forces and policies responsible for the crisis. Almost three billion people, half the world's population, live on less than two US dollars a day.

Poverty brings hunger, death and disease. Some 30,000 children under five die every day from preventable causes. Diseases like Aids, TB and malaria kill more than five million people a year. And the catastrophe of global warming threatens the whole planet. Almost all reputable scientists warn that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is destabilising the world climate, despite the claim from George Bush that there is nothing to worry about.

He said this week that he would not be bothering to attend the summit. He has gone along with his big business friends who have lobbied hard for him not to go to Johannesburg. When Bush first raised the idea of not attending the summit some 31 lobby groups and individuals in the US wrote to him saying, 'We applaud your decision not to attend.'

Signatories included representatives of seven think tanks that received funding from the world's biggest oil corporation, ExxonMobil. Global warming is a serious problem. Ten of the world's hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, making extreme weather more likely.

These issues were discussed at the last Earth Summit in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The centrepiece of Rio was a massive document called 'Agenda 21', which all the world leaders there signed up to. It promised action on poverty, debt, disease and much else. There were promises of action over global warming in the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Yet in the decade since then things have got worse, not better, on almost every front. 'There is a gap between the goals and promises set out in Rio and the daily reality in rich and poor countries alike,' admits United Nations general secretary Kofi Annan. The Rio agreement pledged a massive increase in aid from the richest countries to the poor.

A target was set to boost aid from an average of 0.35 percent of economic output at the time of Rio to a still modest 0.7 percent. But by the year 2000 the average aid budget had fallen to just 0.22 percent of output, and in the US it was just 0.1 percent.

At Rio government leaders pledged to slash the debt burden which devastates many countries. But the total debt burden has grown by a third, to £1,700 billion, since then. Poor countries pay almost 14 percent more of the proportion of their export earnings on debt payment than before. And half of the 26 countries receiving 'debt relief' still spend more on debt payments than on health.

There would be 'universal access' to safe drinking water and sanitation, according to the Rio summit. Yet 1.2 billion people are still without clean water supplies and three billion without adequate sanitation. Diarrhoea, a disease from which virtually no one need die, still kills 2.12 million people a year. Yet Rio's Agenda 21 summit promised to cut deaths from preventable diseases.

There has been a 25 percent rise since Rio in the numbers dying from malaria, to over one million a year. There has been a sixfold leap in AIDS-related deaths to three million, mostly in Africa. What about the other great promise at Rio, of action on climate change by slashing carbon dioxide emissions?

Emissions have risen, not fallen, by almost 10 percent globally since Rio. In 1997 modest targets for cutting carbon dioxide were finally agreed with the Kyoto climate change agreement. But the US, responsible for a quarter of all global emissions, refuses to back even these modest steps. Its carbon dioxide emissions were 16 percent higher in 2000 than in 1990, and are still rising.

And the Kyoto treaty itself is so full of holes that its targets are unlikely to be met. The fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, aviation, is simply excluded from the deal. No wonder South African protesters have denounced the summit as a sham.

'Multinational corporations are hijacking the agenda for the World Summit' Christian Aid

Profit is the priority

GOVERNMENTS' commitment to corporate globalisation has systematically undermined the promises made at the Rio summit. Multinational corporations, governments that back them, and organisations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank pushed their 'neo-liberal' economic dogma.

They insisted that nothing should stand in the way of the relentless drive for profit and markets. They demanded that public services and regulation of business should be sacrificed to the rights of corporations to dominate every aspect of the world. Now in the Johannesburg summit even the pretence that government action can tackle the global crisis is being sidelined.

In the jargon used in the Earth Summits, treaties between governments are labelled 'Type 1 agreements'. There will be none of these in Johannesburg.

Instead the focus will be on 'Type 2 agreements' or 'public-private partnerships', as the charity Christian Aid describes them. Christian Aid explains, 'Type 2 agreements, public-private partnerships operating at the UN level and as official outputs of the summit, will further entrench the role of the private sector in the provision of areas vital for human, sustainable development.'

The Johannesburg draft declaration 'reaffirms an agenda of rapid liberalisation of investments and trade, under the banner of the WTO Trade Round in Doha.' Christian Aid gives a damning assessment of the Johannesburg conference as 'a world summit for business development'. Britain's New Labour government is among those at the forefront of championing this drive.

Tony Blair is with a string of top business people in Johannesburg. He will be helping them to get a share of the money to be made from this global version of the PPP and PFI he forces on us in Britain.

BP, Ford and Coke want 'strong business impact'

BIG CORPORATIONS have played a key role in shaping the structure and agenda of the Earth Summit. The key force is a body called Business Action for Sustainable Development. The organisation held a meeting in Paris in October last year of 140 executives of the world's biggest companies. Bjorn Stigson of Business Action spoke openly about what they wanted from the summit.

'We want to ensure that the business voice is heard in a strong and cohesive manner to give a strong business impact at the summit,' he said. 'We have been active in interacting with the UN system and others to put across business ideas for the structure of the summit and for the agenda and arrangements which will eventually emerge.'

The corporations behind Business Action are among those responsible for the very poverty and environmental devastation that the summit is supposed to address. They include oil companies like BP and Shell, and car companies like Ford and General Motors.

There are also food corporations such as Cargill and Coca-Cola, drugs firms like Bayer and Aventis, mining corporations like Rio Tinto and Anglo American, and genetically modified crop companies like Novartis and Monsanto. Business Action is chaired by Phillip Watts of Shell, with BP's deputy chief executive Rodney Chase also on the board. Robert Wilson, of mining company Rio Tinto, is another board member of Business Action.

Wilson has also been made part of Britain's official delegation by Tony Blair. The vice-chair of the organisation is William Stavropoulos, chair of US corporation Dow Chemicals. This multinational owns Union Carbide, which was responsible for the world's worst ever industrial disaster, in Bhopal in India in 1984. The accident left 20,000 people dead.

These are the firms and people the governments at the Earth Summit will be telling us will save the environment and tackle poverty and disease.

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Sat 31 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1815
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