The EU was unprepared for the battle at Johannesburg

Despite agreement on targets for improving access to sanitation and greater protection of the world’s fish stocks at the World Summit, there were no targets for introducing renewable energy, and many pre-existing agreements have been watered down or totally disposed of, say delegates and environmental activists. One reason for this is that the EU arrived at the Summit unprepared, whereas the US had already gathered its allies, says one UK politician.

Shadow Environment Minister for the UK Liberal Democrat Party Malcolm Bruce has criticised the EU for being ill prepared. “What we concluded was that before they got here what was happening was the US and OPEC countries had got together to undermine the EU,” Bruce explained to edie on the telephone from Johannesburg. The EU should have had a fall-back position, and should have negotiated with the G77 countries prior to the Summit. Instead, Saudi Arabia led the G77 countries, he said. “Renewable energy targets were lost even before the Summit opened.”

The talks appeared to be in such disarray at one point that the EU delegation walked out due to disagreements with the US, and the coalition of charities also pulled out.

However, there have been some highlights. As well as protection of the world’s fish stocks announced last week (see related story), a target for access to sanitation, which had been unattainable at the preparation summit in Bali in June (see related story), was agreed upon, and was hailed by the UN as a major step forward to promote efforts to eradicate poverty and protect the environment. Countries agreed to commit themselves to a target of 2015 for halving the proportion of people who lack access to proper sanitation. Currently, more than one billion people lack such access, a further billion lack access to clean drinking water, and around 6,000 children die from diarrhoeal diseases every day.

A number of initiatives to assist this goal have also been announced. These include US$970 million over three years from the US, the EU’s Water for Life project, and a further US$20 million from 21 other initiatives.

Johannesburg Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai noted that it is hard to imagine how sustainable development can be implemented when such huge numbers of people are without proper sanitation facilities. “This is an historic commitment, because for the first time, the world has made the issue of water and sanitation a high-level political priority,” he said. “We need this political commitment, and now we need the practical measures and partnerships to ensure that the new goals are met.”

Other good news includes the rejection of an amendment to the Summit agreement that would have allowed the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to override international treaties on the environment. Following a last minute impassioned plea by Ethiopia, ministers rejected the clause which would have given the WTO the power to force countries to accept genetically modified food and would have put at risk treaties such as those on toxic waste and ozone depleting substances.

Although countries failed to produce targets for phasing in renewable energy, the agreed document does call for countries to act ‘with a sense of urgency’ to substantially increase renewable energy, and also calls for nations to phase out energy subsidies that inhibit sustainable development.

Despite the US’s ability to form alliances, however, the leader of the nation’s delegation, Colin Powell, found himself being booed and jeered throughout his speech to the Summit, in which he stated that the United States is taking action to meet environmental challenges, including climate change.

“Colin Powell shouldn’t have been surprised at the hostile reaction he got from delegates throughout his speech,” said Tony Juniper, Vice Chair of environmental group Friends of the Earth, one of those who heckled Powell. “When the US forms world coalitions it expects others to join in. But when the rest of the world joins forces to protect the world’s environment the US arrogantly opts out.”

However, there were plenty of people who stated that they were pleased with the Summit’s outcome.

“During the period we have engaged one another at the World Summit we have achieved much in bringing together a diverse and rich tapestry of peoples and views in a constructive search for a common path that will move all of us forward faster towards a world that practically respects and implements the vision of sustainable development,” said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

UK Secretary of State for the Environment Margaret Beckett also claimed to be pleased. “The overall outcome of this summit is truly remarkable,” she is quoted as saying in The Times newspaper. “We had to give it our best shot to get the best deal we could, and we did. As in all negotiations we aimed high and we ended up with more than we might have expected. I am in no doubt that our descendents will look back on this summit and say we set out on a new path.”

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