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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 12:02 GMT
Earth summit: Decade of failure
Power station towers, BBC
The Earth Summit set about tackling climate change
Ten years after world leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio to tackle environmental problems, nothing has really changed. The BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker explains why.

The Earth Summit in Rio began with high hopes and ended with broken promises.

A decade ago, world leaders signed agreements designed to protect the planet from climate change, deforestation and species extinction. Today, environmental experts describe the summit as an abject failure.

We are seeing that species numbers are continuing to go down.

Francis Sullivan
"There were many fine achievements on paper at Rio but what has happened on the ground since Rio is all too little," said independent conservation scientist Dr Norman Myers. "And while the environmental outlook was pretty dire at the time of Rio, it is a good deal worse now. We have to face that."

Long-term extinction trends in plants and animals have been unaffected by the Earth Summit, according to Francis Sullivan, director of conservation at the international environmental group, WWF.

"We are seeing that species numbers - in the marine environment, the freshwater environment and on land in the forests - are continuing to go down," he said.

"It's been a steady decrease since 1975. We've actually lost a third of the biological wealth of the planet since that time and there's no evidence really that any of the talk since 1992 has done anything to abate that."

Biological diversity

The planet's biological wealth was supposed to gain protection from the Convention on Biological Diversity. This was the big treaty agreed at Rio alongside the Climate Change Convention.

Its primary aim was the defence of the natural world through either new conservation programmes or the promotion of sustainable exploitation of wild habitats.

The convention set out overall goals and policies, and general obligations. But like the other Rio treaties, it is not legally binding.

There's still a lot of wrangling going on about who should really do what and who's going to pay for it.

Francis Sullivan
Its success depends on co-operation between economically poorer but biologically rich tropical countries and economically richer nations in the industrialised world.

Given the threat to biodiversity at the time of Rio, the Earth Summit's organiser Maurice Strong urged action from the conference platform.

"The need to begin the process is so urgent, so compelling that governments, particularly those of the higher income countries, will have come here, I trust, prepared to make the initial commitments that will be necessary to do this," he said.

Ten years on, the Convention on Biological Diversity has failed to achieve anything, according to Mr Sullivan.

"There's still a lot of wrangling going on about who should really do what and who's going to pay for it," he said. "And what was implicit in all the run-up to 1992 was that there did need to be some form of global deal with northern countries being prepared to compensate the south in some way for managing resources sustainably.

"We just haven't seen the sorts of transfers of funds going into the right areas."

Forest devastation

Tropical forests came under the remit of the Biodiversity Convention and another Rio document - the Statement of Principles on Forests.

Essentially, this is a set of guidelines for countries to follow in their policies on natural forest conservation and exploitation.

The global rate of tropical forest destruction remains at the level it was in the early 1990s - 1% per year. That means 10% of the world's rainforest is destroyed in a decade.

In fact, some experts say the rate per year has actually increased in that time. And according to Mr Sullivan, any positive results in the area of the sustainable use of tropical forest have emerged from action independent of the Rio treaties.

Forest, BBC
Each year 1% of the world's rainforest is destroyed
"One example is the Forest Stewardship Council which is now a global timber certification scheme which in the last 10 years has managed to certify as well manage an area of more than 25 million hectares of forest," he said.

"That's an area the size of the UK around the world which is now contributing to sustainable development. That's a glimmer of hope for the future. Governments should be supporting it but it really has come out independently from both the Forest Principles and the Convention on Biological Diversity."

Despite the lack of results in the last decade on most environmental issues, Mr Myers believes the realisation that a crisis in one country causes serious trouble for many others - and sometimes the whole world - may be taking root among national leaders.

He even suggests that the international coalition which led to the eviction of the Taleban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan may influence politicians when they go to South Africa for the next Earth Summit.

"September 11 may have broken the old mould of looking at the world as 200 little independent management packages that we call 'nation states'," Mr Myers said. "We have to join hands with people in all other kinds of other countries right round the world, for our own collective benefit."

See also:

13 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Blair urged to tackle Bush over Kyoto
11 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Crunch time nears for climate treaty
10 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
EU woos Japan on climate pact
07 Apr 01 | Americas
EU ready to renegotiate Kyoto
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