UK leading the way to Johannesburg

The UK has been one of the most active countries in the world in the run-up to the world’s largest-ever environmental conference, and is one of only two nations to have conducted consultations with society as part of its preparations. However, the issues surrounding the summit need more media attention, say organisers.


Only the UK and Norway have included the opinions of society in their preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg at the end of August, delegates were told at a conference on 16 July. The conference took place in Birmingham, the only city to be twinned with Johannesburg, and is the latest in a series of events in the UK’s preparation for Johannesburg (see related story).

Despite criticism that little has been done since the Rio Earth Summit ten years ago, progress has been made throughout the UK, according to representatives from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the UNED-UK Committee – the group organising the multi-stakeholder consultation, and the UK branch of the Stakeholder Forum for Our Common Future.

There were a number of positive outcomes from the Rio summit in 1992, said Felix Dodds, Executive Director of the Stakeholder Forum. These include Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on sustainable development, the Climate Change and Biodiversity conventions, and the forestry principles. Since then the Summit has continued to provide a positive influence, with the development of conventions on desertification, fish stocks, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the Commission on Sustainable Development and local Agenda 21, said Dodds.

“But we’ve had huge problems,” he added. These include a substantial gap in funding for sustainable development issues, a lack of implementation, governance, and political will. “It’s not that we don’t know what the problems are,” said Dodds. “The problem that we have is that our political leaders at the moment don’t have the will.”

The recent Prep Com in Bali was also relatively successful, despite media reports (see related story), said Georgina Ayre, UK Preparation for Earth Summit 2002 Project Coordinator, on the UNED-UK Committee. Although 25% of the Implementation Document for the Summit is still bracketed, “it’s better to have an un-agreed text than a weak agreed text,” Ayre said.

“Sometimes one might wonder whether a summit is the right answer,” said Environment Minister Michael Meacher in a video message to the conference. However, if it is worked at, the Summit could produce an important advance in sustainable development, he noted. “It is certainly a prize worth striving for.”

Within the UK, there has been progress since the 1992 summit. In Scotland this has been driven by high levels of commitment and participation, said Allan Wilson, Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development at the Scottish Executive. “The strength of Scotland’s commitment is rarely questioned, and rightly so,” he noted.

Recently, there has been the development of a dedicated Cabinet sub-committee for sustainable development, and a major public consultation. “I’m not saying that Scotland has had the best record on sustainable development,” said Wilson. “But we’re on the right path.”

However, according to a survey carried out by the Scottish Civic Forum, the general public is in agreement about the country’s poor record on sustainable development. Progress on sustainability indicators has been poor, according to the survey, and Government departments have tended to see the issue as an add-on, and not within their mainstream responsibility. The survey also suggests that there needs to be some mechanism in Scotland for recognising, celebrating and communicating good practice on sustainability.

One delegate suggested that if a school report was to be written on the actions of the devolved states, Wales would come out at the top. The National Assembly for Wales has been working with Forum for the Future to ensure progress towards sustainable development, said Matthew Quinn, Director of Policy at the Welsh Assembly. However, Quinn noted, “If you’re not frustrated at the pace of change then you’re probably not taking it seriously enough.”

Northern Ireland has also been making progress, including an imminent biodiversity strategy and a recent public procurement policy. However, the region’s political problems means that attention is often on other matters, said Brian Murphy of the Department of Environment at the Northern Ireland Assembly. “We’re preoccupied with our own situation,” he said.

Finally, the host of the conference, the city of Birmingham has also been working towards sustainable development, and the Johannesburg Summit in particular. One recent activity has been ‘Your Wake-up Call’, a week-long residential conference of 80 young people aged between 13 and 18 from the UK, Ireland and South Africa. The delegates have decided to campaign on the issue of ‘food miles’ at the Johannesburg conference, and, as well as other activities, intend to host a lunch for the world leaders during the closing stages of the Summit.

According to Isabel McLeish and Laura Russel of Turves Green Girl’s School, two of the ‘Your Wake-up Call’ delegates, the average Sunday lunch can travel about 50,000 miles before you eat it.

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