The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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How another summit was made

It has been calculated that flying all 65,000 delegates to the ten-day world summit on environment and development in Johannesburg on August 26 will dump an extra half-million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That is the single greatest absurdity about the world’s biggest-ever conference, but there are many more.

Criticizing this shindig is like shooting fish in a barrel. Twenty different United Nations agencies are sending separate delegations to Johannesburg; no final agenda for the conference has been agreed on despite any number of preparatory meetings; there will be 106 ten-minute speeches by heads of state at the end of this grotesquely swollen event. Any halfway-competent journalist can write this sort of stuff in his sleep, and that’s just what some of the lazier ones among the 6,000-strong media contingent in Johannesburg will be doing.

What they do not understand is that almost all publicity is good publicity. Johannesburg is a stage from which people concerned about the environment can address a basically sympathetic global public, the hook for thousands of environmental stories in the world media. And it were governments that arranged it.

Many officials in national governments and international organizations are there partly because they genuinely want to do some good, and they know that their political masters cannot move until the popular support is there. So there is a lot of political activity, especially at the international level, whose real purpose is not making treaties, but influencing public opinion.

The big shows

Johannesburg is a case in point. The global public’s knowledge and concern about environmental matters have to be sustained by a variety of means, and the 10th anniversary of the landmark Rio-de-Janeiro earth summit was too good an opportunity to miss.

There will be no bold new environmental initiatives at Johannesburg to compare with the climate change convention and the biodiversity convention that were agreed at Rio ten years ago, mainly because things move very slowly when 174 countries are involved. It took five years to translate the climate change accord into specific and binding national targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at Kyoto in 1997, and after five more years it is still not clear whether the United States of America will be able to sabotage its ratification or not.

So beyond general consciousness-raising, the current state of play in international environmental politics means that the main short-term usefulness of the Johannesburg conference is to maintain popular support for the Kyoto accord in the face of US tactics. Although nobody connected with the conference would admit it in public, that comes down to influencing public opinion in a very few countries.

Crucial votes

Kyoto cannot come into effect until 55 countries have ratified it, including industrialized countries responsible for 55 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions of the industrialized world. Fifty-five countries have already ratified, but since the US alone accounted for 36.1 per cent of the emissions, almost every other developed country must ratify the accord in order to cross the threshold.

Most of them, the European Union countries and Japan, accounting for 35.2 per cent of emissions, already have. Eastern European countries anxious to join the EU will certainly ratify Kyoto, and Russia, responsible for 17.4 per cent of the emissions, is also committed to doing so. But the total may still fall a crucial one or two per cent short of the 55 per cent threshold — which is why Canada and Australia, both close US allies with huge energy sectors, have become the critical players.

Just one of them ratifying the treaty would be enough to make Kyoto a reality, but Australia has already caved in to the local coal-exporting industry, and the Canadian government is looking distinctly wobbly. So though Johannesburg is about many other things as well, its principal contemporary real-world function is to focus Canada’s public opinion on the need to rise above petty local concerns. And that, in 2002, is how the world actually works. It could be a lot worse.

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