The Johannesburg Summit Test: What Will Change?
New York, 25 September When the United Nations General Assembly
authorized holding the World Summit on Sustainable Development, it was hardly a
secret or even a point in dispute that progress in implementing
sustainable development has been extremely disappointing since the 1992 Earth
Summit, with poverty deepening and environmental degradation worsening. What
the world wanted, the General Assembly said, was not a new philosophical or
political debate but rather, a summit of actions and results.
By any account, the Johannesburg Summit has laid the groundwork and paved the
way for action. Yet among all the targets, timetables and commitments that were
agreed upon at Johannesburg, there were no silver bullet solutions to aid the
fight against poverty and a continually deteriorating natural environment. In
fact, there was no magic and no miracle only the realization that
practical and sustained steps were needed to address many of the world's most
As an implementation-focused Summit, Johannesburg did not produce a
particularly dramatic outcome there were no agreements that will lead to
new treaties and many of the agreed targets were derived from a panoply of
assorted lower profile meetings. But some important new targets were
established, such as: to halve the proportion of people without access to basic
sanitation by 2015; to use and produce chemicals by 2020 in ways that do not
lead to significant adverse effects on human health and the environment; to
maintain or restore depleted fish stocks to levels that can produce the maximum
sustainable yield on an urgent basis and where possible by 2015; and to achieve
by 2010 a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biological
But Johannesburg also marked a major departure from previous UN conferences in
many ways, in structure and in outcome, that could have a major effect on the
way the international community approaches problem solving in the future.
"The question is, will Johannesburg make a genuine difference?" asked
Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai. "That has to be the test for an
For the first time, outcome documents were not the sole product of the Summit.
While the negotiations still received the lion's share of attention, the Summit
also resulted in the launch of more than 300 voluntary partnerships, each of
which will bring additional resources to support efforts to implement
sustainable development. These partnerships, tied to the government
commitments, provide a built-in mechanism to ensure implementation.
And there was a new level of dialogue in Johannesburg between all the
stakeholders, especially between governments, civil society and the private
sector. Beyond speeches and platitudes, the participants in the Summit were
forced to confront the needs and the arguments of other actors in a truly
"Johannesburg gives us a solid basis for implementation and action to go
forward," Desai said. "Although the Johannesburg Plan of
Implementation is only some 50 pages long, in many ways it is more targeted and
more focused than Agenda 21. We have agreed on global priorities for action and
we have agreed to take action."
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the press on the last day of
the Summit, "I think we have to be careful not to expect conferences like
this to produce miracles. But we do expect conferences like this to generate
political commitment, momentum and energy for the attainment of the
Commitments were made in Johannesburg on expanding access to water and
sanitation, on energy, improving agricultural yields, managing toxic chemicals,
protecting biodiversity and improving ecosystem management not only by
governments, but also by NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and businesses,
who launched over 300 voluntary initiatives.
Follow-through on these commitments will be the yardstick of success or
failure, according to Mr. Annan. "We invited the leaders of the world to
come here and commit themselves to sustainable development, to protecting our
planet, to maintaining the essential balance and to go back home and take
action. It is on the ground that we will have to test how really successful we
are. But we have started off well. Johannesburg is a beginning. I am not saying
Johannesburg is the end of it. It is a beginning."
By any indication, there was substantial interest in the Summit. One hundred
world leaders addressed the Summit and all in all, more than 22,000 people
participated in WSSD, including more than 10,000 delegates, 8,000 NGOs and
representatives of civil society, and 4,000 members of the press.
"We knew from the beginning of the Johannesburg process that the Summit
would not produce any new treaties or any single momentous breakthrough,"
Desai said. "But the results of the Summit have been far more
comprehensive than any previous outcome. We have put together not only a work
plan, but we have identified the actors who are expected to achieve
"People forget that there was no agreement on energy at Rio and issues
such as production and consumption almost did not make it into Agenda 21,
and although it did it was only a very general statement. At
Johannesburg, we agreed on a 10-year programme on production and consumption, a
concept that not only will affect the developing countries, but the development
of the richer countries as well."
"We have also achieved a high level of specificity in the outcome
document, particularly with regards to the targets and timetables," Desai
said. "I know some may have wanted more, but fulfilling these commitments
will require new and additional resources."
Desai also cited the partnerships as an important outcome of the Summit.
"One of our major challenges is making sustainable development go to
scale, to make something that has worked in a dozen places work in a thousand
places." Desai said the partnerships offer a way to get away from the
donor-driven frameworks of the past, and allow representatives from developed
and developing countries to sit down together to formulate plans when something
has to be done.
"For those of you who have worked in developing countries, you are always
at the receiving end of prescriptions and conditionalities. We need a shared
programmatic structure framework and the partnerships help meet this
"Some people have said that the partnerships are corporate-led,"
Desai said. "This is not true. The vast majority are led by
non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations. But even if there is
corporate involvement, that is not a bad thing. We will not be credible if we
don't have the participation of business. We need to bring the energy of
corporations into our agenda if we are going to make good on our
Desai warned, however, that the partnerships were not a substitute for
government responsibilities and commitments and that the partnerships are
solely intended to deepen the quality of implementation.
Not everyone was pleased with the outcome of Johannesburg, particularly some
NGOs who felt the Summit did not go far enough in setting targets for
increasing the use of renewable energies. Jonathan Lash, World Resources
Institute President, said, "We have missed an opportunity to increase
energy production from non-polluting sources like solar, biomass, and wind, and
to provide the many companies taking action to reduce emissions with a secure
framework for their actions."
But Lash noted, "This Summit will be remembered not for the treaties, the
commitments, or the declarations it produced, but for the first stirrings of a
new way of governing the global commons the beginnings of a shift from
the stiff formal waltz of traditional diplomacy to the jazzier dance of
improvisational solution-oriented partnerships that may include non-government
organizations, willing governments and other stakeholders," said Lash.
From governments, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is currently
President of the European Union, said, "The conference has concluded a
global deal recommending free trade and increased development assistance and
had committed to good governance as well as a better environment." He
added, "Now the time has come for implementation, at the national and
international levels. It is time to deliver."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Chairman of the Group of 77 which
represents 132 developing countries said he would have liked the Summit
to achieve much more. Because of time restraints, he said, the generalities
that had been set out could be seen as retrograde. He would have preferred
emphasis on human rights, such as the right to housing, health, drinking water,
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) had also hoped for more. Julian Hunt,
Minister of International Trade and Civil Aviation of Saint Lucia, speaking on
behalf of SIDS, said that small islands needed more help to confront the trade
aspects of globalization, and that efforts to promote the use of renewable
energy were frustrated by multinationals who demand a quick return on their
United States Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Summit a
"successful effort." He said, "I think it shows that we have a
shared vision of how to move forward. I think it shows that the world is
committed to sustainable development. He added, however, that the real
challenge "is not just what is said in the statement, but the actions that
will take place in the months and years ahead."
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Department of Economic and
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24 August 2006