Recycling Environmentalism

Two decades of talk and treaties have not stemmed environmental degradation.

Early in his term, President Carter asked a group of us in his administration to prepare what in 1980 became the "Global 2000 Report to the President." Our task was to project the population and environmental outcomes that would unfold by 2000 if societies did nothing to change course. The steps governments took over the last two decades represented the first experiment in global environmental governance. That experiment failed. Rates of environmental deterioration continue essentially unabated.

The U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg in August, is the latest opportunity to assess progress and plot a course for effective environmental policies. It would be comforting to think that this conference — along with all the summit agreements, international negotiations, conventions, and protocols of the past 20 years — will take us to the point of decisive action. But it won’t. The summit promises to be anything but revolutionary. Meanwhile, environmental problems have gone from bad to worse.

We saw it coming. "Global 2000" projected that population would grow from 4 billion to 6.3 billion by 2000. The actual number was 6 billion. We projected that tropical deforestation would occur at rates in excess of an acre per second, and for 20 years, that’s what happened. We projected that 15 to 20 percent of all species would be lost, and recent analysis suggests that this estimate was not far off the mark.

The report projected that an area about the size of Maine would be rendered barren each year by desertification. And that remains a decent estimate. We predicted that growing energy use would lead in this century to a 2 to 3 degree Celsius rise in midlatitude temperatures and to significant changes in rainfall patterns. This description of the greenhouse effect still falls neatly within current estimates.

Information on global environmental trends is far more sophisticated today but no more reassuring. Most people will soon live in water-stressed areas. Half the tropical forests are gone, and countries outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s membership are projected to lose another 10 percent by 2020. Half of the world’s mangroves and wetlands have also been destroyed. Bird and mammal species are disappearing at an estimated 100 to 1,000 times the rate at which extinctions naturally occur. Industry and agriculture are fixing nitrogen at rates that exceed nature’s, and among the many consequences of the resulting overfertilization are 50 dead zones in the oceans, one the size of New Jersey. In 1960, 5 percent of marine fisheries were either fished to capacity or overfished. Today, 70 percent are in this condition.

On top of these biotic impoverishments comes the biggest threat of all: global climate change. The best current estimate is that, absent major corrective action, climate shifts over the lifetime of today’s children will likely make it impossible for about half the U.S. land to sustain its current plant and animal communities.

Not only have governments failed to reverse these trends, they have laid a poor foundation for rapid progress. Twenty years of international environmental negotiations have been disappointing. It is not that what has been agreed upon — for example, in the conventions on climate, desertification, and biodiversity — is useless. But these treaties are mostly frameworks for action. They do not drive the needed changes. The same can be said for the extensive discussions on world forests, which have never reached the point of a treaty. Vague agreements, minimal requirements, lax enforcement, and underfunded support plague the new field of international environmental law. The principal attempt to reach a binding, action-forcing agreement — the climate convention’s Kyoto Protocol — only modestly contributes to a climate solution and has yet to be adopted a decade after the convention was signed.

These weaknesses should not be a surprise; the agreements were forged with procedures that gave maximum leverage to countries with an interest in thwarting international action. The United States successfully weakened the Kyoto Protocol; Brazil has worked to keep a forest convention at bay; Japan and other major fishing countries watered down the international marine fisheries agreement. Similarly, the institutions created to address these issues — the United Nations Environment Programme and the Commission on Sustainable Development — are among the weakest multilateral organizations.

It is time to correct past mistakes. We need, first, to address more directly and aggressively the main drivers of environmental deterioration.

An escalation of proven, noncoercive approaches to population control could lead to a leveling off of global population at about 8.5 billion people in this century. But this will not happen without adequate support for the 1994 Cairo Plan of Action — a U.N. commitment to improving women’s health, welfare, and status that is now being underfunded by half.

Poverty destroys the environment: The poor often have no choice but to lean too heavily on a declining resource base. Also, developing-country views in international negotiations on the environment are powerfully shaped by preoccupation with their own compelling economic and social challenges and distrust of industrial-country intentions and policies. The rich world has to recognize these challenges if it is to gain the trust of developing countries. A sustainable development strategy provides the only context to address both development and environmental objectives. As is the case with the population problem, inadequate assistance impedes development, and so do protectionist trade regimes and heavy debt burdens.

Transformation of the technologies that dominate manufacturing, energy, transportation, and agriculture is key to reducing pollution and resource consumption while achieving economic growth. Across a wide front, environmentally sophisticated technologies are either available or soon can be. From 1990 to 1998, when oil and natural gas use grew globally at a rate of 2 percent annually and when coal consumption remained constant, wind energy grew at an annual rate of 22 percent and photovoltaics at 16 percent. Denmark now gets 8 percent of its electricity from wind, and last year, Japan installed 100 megawatts of photovoltaic power. Transformation of the energy sector must rank as the highest priority.

But the required changes in technology and consumption will not happen unless there are environmentally honest prices. Full-cost pricing is thwarted by the failure of governments everywhere to eliminate environmentally perverse subsidies (estimated globally at $1.5 trillion per year) and to ensure that market prices capture all the costs environmental degradation imposes. There is no reason to expect major environmental improvement while these distortions persist. In an important step forward, Germany is experimenting with shifting taxes from things to be encouraged, such as employment, to things to be discouraged, such as energy consumption.

If the world is to attack these problems, it must also radically revise its approach to global environmental governance. Progress depends on new procedures for forging international agreements and on new institutions, including a World Environment Organization, which could be as effective as the World Trade Organization is in its sphere. The international community has demonstrated, mostly in economic areas, that it can create effective multilateral arrangements.

The final path to the future is to pursue measures that will encourage the most exciting development today in this field: the proliferation of bottom-up, unscripted initiatives from business, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), local governments, and others. Companies such as DuPont, Shell, BP Amoco, and Alcan have agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. DuPont is on schedule to reduce emissions by 65 percent. Eleven major companies have committed to develop markets for 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy over the next decade. And companies have agreed to certify that their wood comes from sustainably managed forests or that the fish they process have come from sustainable fisheries. NGOs have been important creative forces in such initiatives. Local governments, universities, and other entities have also contributed. Over 500 cities around the world have joined a campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. political system alternates between incremental drift and rapid change. The global environment has been addressed incrementally, where major change is required. Is the world witnessing the beginning of such a phase shift in the antiglobalization protests, in the unprecedented initiatives undertaken by both private corporations and local communities, in the growth of NGOs and their innovations, in scientists speaking up and speaking out, and in the outpouring of environmental initiatives by the religious community? We must certainly hope so. The alarms sounded 20 years ago have not been heeded, and soon it will be too late to prevent an appalling deterioration of the natural world.

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