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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 4 September, 2002, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Earth Summit: Alex Kirby took your questions

  Click here to watch the forum.  

  • Click here to read the transcript


    Governments, environmentalists and business leaders talked for ten days at the world development summit in Johannesburg.

    Although politicians are claiming headway was made in closing the gap between rich and poor nations, they have been criticised for not doing more on issues like increasing the use of renewable energy.

    Aid agencies and poorer countries complained that they still won't get enough access for agricultural exports to markets in the developed world where farmers receive heavy subsidies.

    Do you think any progress was made in Johannesburg ? Do you think it will improve the chances of the poor? Is there enough protection for the environment ? If not, who do you blame? Do you think targets on improving access to sanitation can be met ?

    The BBC's News Online environment correspondent Alex Kirby answered your questions on the Earth Summit in a special forum.


    Transcript


    Newhost:

    Hello, I'm Karen Allen and welcome to our interactive online forum. We'll be answering your questions on the UN summit in Johannesburg. It's coming to a close, but has it achieved anything? Oxfam, the international aid agency, has attacked leaders at the summit for offering only crumbs to the poor. Well, the outcome of the ten-day summit saw nations pledged to halve the number of people without water and sanitation by 2015 and to seek renewable energy sources.

    However, the summit has been criticised for failing to set concrete targets. President Bush didn't travel to Johannesburg, but his secretary of state Colin Powell did. He was booed and heckled today during his speech. Well, Alex Kirby, BBC News Online's environment correspondent joins us now from Johannesburg after what's been an extremely interesting and rather exhausting week. But without further ado, Alex, we've been deluged with e-mails from around the globe.

    If I can start off with one from the United States, from Thalia Schlossberg, she says, Alex, it sounds like the summit's been at least overwhelming for all the attendees. Throughout the many topics discussed or mentioned which ones do you think have been most central to the question of the environment?


    Alex Kirby:

    Well I don't think it's been as overwhelmed with attendees as we'd expected. We were told there were going to be something like 65,000 here. I think the overall number including people like myself in the media is about half that, like about 30,000-35,000. But the most central achievement of this summit I think is the agreement on sanitation, that the number of people in the world without adequate sanitation should be halved by 2015. That is worthwhile in anyone's book and is a great step forward. It, of course, goes to the heart of the summit which is about both the environment and poverty. There's a great deal else that could have happened, might have happened, on poverty, and didn't. But sanitation is something to hold on to.


    Newhost:

    We had a question from Kobe in Wales and also from Jacko in South Africa which I need to link together. Kobe asks has anything been resolved at the summit for the people who need the help most, the poor of the world? And Jacko from South Africa, if I could add his question to this, isn't there a danger that actually the summit was politically hijacked by Mugabe and actually could this have been prevented? Has the agenda been so, so broad that the benefits are pretty meagre?


    Alex Kirby:

    Well, going first of all to the question about what it's done for the poor, you mentioned earlier the judgement by Oxfam, the international aid agency, that this has been crumbs for the poor. And I think in terms of delivering on poverty the summit has done very, very little. Much, much less than many people were hoping for and expecting that it would do. On the question of whether the summit has been hijacked by people like President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Njoma of Namibia, no, I don't think it has.

    I mean obviously they made a splash when they made their speeches, when they attacked the United Kingdom, but it went. You know, we're always on the look out for developments here, that was a development we covered. But I don't think in any sense at all it hijacked the summit. I think there were other things that you could say hijacked the summit, but it wasn't Mr Mugabe or Mr Njoma.


    Newhost:

    There was a lot of anger that was levelled at the Americans during the course of the summit and people are asking us, well, really how important is it to carry America along with this? Steve Buckley from Scotland said can you tell me why it's so important for America to join in the world summit? Granted it's the biggest polluter, but really does this stop the rest of us doing what's actually needed?


    Alex Kirby:

    It's enormously important to carry the US with the rest of the world, not only is it the biggest polluter it's also, as it often points out, the biggest generator of wealth in the world. It's enormously important to carry it along, but I don't think it's absolutely essential. There was some news a short time ago in the summit that Russia is going to ratify the Kyoto protocol, the international agreement on climate change.

    Now that makes it pretty well certain that the protocol will enter into force. It's not going to do very much to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but it's a start. The Americans say, we are not going to have anything to do with it, but this shows that although we'd like to have the Americans with us we can do things without them. So I don't think they are actually preventing progress on some issues here.


    Newhost:

    Anger has been levelled at the Americans and Colin Powell was actually heckled offstage, as we saw a little earlier on today. Paul from the UK has asked why is the media so critical of the US's unwillingness to sign up to, what he called, unenforceable targets that no one in the developed world has any intention of financing? Shouldn't the media congratulate US honesty and criticise EU hypocrisy? Did we see a lot of EU hypocrisy there?


    Alex Kirby:

    I don't think we saw a lot of hypocrisy by anyone. I don't think it is the media's job normally either to congratulate or to criticise. It is our job to report. We are reporters. We try to tell people what is happening and leave them to make their own judgements. That said, I think we should identify hypocrisy or honesty wherever we find them so that people can make up their own minds.

    I don't agree that the US is rejecting unenforceable targets. I think the targets set, for instance in the Kyoto protocol, the climate change agreement, those will be enforced sooner or later. It's only a very small beginning, but I think it is going to happen and I think on that issue you can't accuse the EU of hypocrisy. There are all sorts of things going on behind the scenes we don't know.


    Newhost:

    Absolutely, and that's the difficulty isn't it? At a summit like this the expectation is that it will be fast solutions. But you talk about sooner or later, what is a reasonable time frame there?


    Alex Kirby:

    A reasonable time frame for Kyoto? I think we're going to see something happening certainly within the next ten years, probably within the next five. I think it's going to be much slower on many of the other things that this summit was meant to resolve. For instance, doing something serious about poverty. I mean, to take the simplest sort of example of what developed countries can do about poverty, they could reach the United Nations target of giving 0.7 per cent of their national income in development aid. That's 70 cents for every hundred dollars they earn.

    Well, they've made the right noises but they haven't set a target or a timetable. It's just like the real earth summit ten years ago, in 1992. It's a rerun of that. They've said we'll do it when we can. That is one example of something which should have happened here, happened fast, but has no sign of happening at any time in the foreseeable future.


    Newhost:

    I think that's something that Amoroso Gombe in Kenya will be very interested to hear about, they've written to us saying why should we care about the environment while we're so poor and you are so rich, and you don't give a damn about us Africans enough to open up your markets to our produce? What about market access for us so that we can get out of poverty, what about that? We didn't hear much discussion about that, the World Trade Organisation agreement, better, for example, access to drugs.


    Alex Kirby:

    It's a very good question and I find it hard to disagree with it except to say that in the end there's only one environment, it doesn't respect the borders of Kenya or the United Kingdom or anywhere, we all share it. We'll swim together or we'll sink together. That said I think this question is absolutely spot on because it identifies one of the things that could have happened here which will be a signal from the developed countries that they were going to do something about providing fair and proper access to their markets for goods from the developing countries, that they were going to do something about fairer commodity prices for the resources that are imported to the northern countries, and also that they should do something about phasing out subsidies.

    The amount of subsidy paid to farmers in the European Union is immense. Someone told me the other day that with the amount of money spent on the European Union's Common Agriculture Policy we could fly every cow in Europe around the world in first class. That gives you perhaps some idea of the extent of the money, and that is impoverishing farmers in the developing world.


    Newhost:

    That's a wonderful analogy. I have to ask why would one want to fly every cow first class around the world? But that's quite an interesting analogy.


    Alex Kirby:

    It just helps, I think, to make the point.


    Newhost:

    Absolutely. And I think it's quite right, it certainly helps to remember the point. Someone has asked a question about population, about population targets. We've had an e-mail from Peter in South Africa who says that sustainable development includes having a sustainable population. Have countries been set population growth targets as part of the final document?


    Alex Kirby:

    Emphatically, no, they have not been set population targets. I think if the conference had been trying to agree population targets we would have been here until the end of the year and beyond, probably. There are very few targets indeed in the final document. The one on sanitation is one, there is an agreement on fisheries and on chemicals. But no, no mention at all of that. I don't think it would work. I don't think any country would agree that it could have a population target set for it by a body like this. And if it did agree, who would enforce it?

    Attempts by some countries to limit their population by enforceable means have not got very far. In fact population is tending to go down, to stabilise, and the richer people get, the fewer children they have. The population curve is slowing but it's going to be a long, long time before it slows enough. We'll probably be up to something like nine billion people in the world by 2050. So it's a nice idea, population targets but no, it hasn't happened, and I don't think it will.


    Newhost:

    How significant has the row been, and this is a question from me, the row about family planning, and family planning provision as part of that population strategy?


    Alex Kirby:

    Well it has been quite an important row. It's involved several groups, it's involved the United States, the G77 group of developing countries, and the Holy See, the Vatican. One unkind individual, taking his cue from President Bush, described the three of those as the axis of medieval, not the axis of evil. But they have been insisting really that abortion should not be endorsed by the conference. But there is also concern about issues like genital mutilation and honour killings. So it has been a protracted wrangle. I think now it's been solved and it is really on one side. But the argument over whether or not abortion should be a legitimate thing for a country to have in its policy, that will continue.


    Newhost:

    It's been very interesting to observe a summit, to actually see throughout the whole duration of the summit what has been one of the biggest threats to the environment and to population, that about HIV Aids. We've had very, very little mention of that. Is that simply because it's been cast aside or because there were too many divisions between delegates to be able even to broach the subject?


    Alex Kirby:

    I think probably the conference organisers would say, well, you know, this is not the place to have a big discussion on HIV Aids, that's not what this summit is about. Just as they say this was not the place to have a discussion about trade or various other issues. They say there are other places to do that. HIV Aids is in the back of the minds of just about everyone here. I mean the forefront of many minds. It came home to me the other day when I called in on an Aids hospice and saw children who looked to be two-years-old, had they been in Britain, they were six-years-old. We were told that they were unlikely to survive beyond ten. But all they wanted was cuddles and affection, they came up and wanted to be picked up, and held, and swung around and taken notice of.

    So, it's a tremendous issue and it is the backdrop or a large part of the backdrop to what has happened here and what hasn't happened here. As of course also is the fact that in southern Africa something like 13 million people face imminent starvation and that is happening sooner than agencies like Oxfam had expected. So they were expected at the feast alright but they didn't get talked about.


    Newhost:

    Just taking a step back from the UN summit for the past week, an interesting question from Inna Tysoe from the United States, who asks if you feel that little was achieved at the summit in part because the European and American environmental lobbies have different political stances on other foreign policy issues such as the Middle East? How significant is that?


    Alex Kirby:

    I do feel that little was achieved at the summit but I don't think that it was anything to do with any differences between the European Union and the Americans or anyone else over the Middle East. Yes, there were protests, I mean some protestors got themselves into trouble with the police the other night when they tried to stop the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, speaking. But I don't think that those were really into being very much in the summit, I think it has got on with it's work, for better or worse. It's achieved what it would have done anyway. And those differences that exist have not taken over the agenda.


    Newhost:

    Are you optimistic or pessimistic on the basis of what you've seen over the past week that this has been a successful world summit and that we actually can move forward from this? That's a question from Matt in the UK.


    Alex Kirby:

    There are things worth holding on to from this summit, particularly the agreement on sanitation. Overall, though, I'm a pessimist. Now you shouldn't necessarily read too much into that because I think I'm a born again pessimist anyway. I always see the glass as half empty rather than half full. But seriously, I do think a lot of people had very high hopes and expectations of Johannesburg. They thought it would actually make some difference to the wretched of the earth, to the people who live in abject poverty.

    This summit, like Rio, has done some worthwhile things, things that we will be glad in the future to have on the record. But I think it's been a sort of timorous step towards a slightly adjusted world. It hasn't been a bold move towards the different world that many people in the developed, as well as the developing countries, believe is now essential.


    Newhost:

    On the good side, on the positive side, are you surprised Alex about the amount of media coverage it's received? I mean, you've been broadcasting almost 24 hours a day, around the clock, and there's been a lot of media interest in this. And Bush didn't even attend. Have you been surprised by that?


    Alex Kirby:

    I'm not surprised that President Bush didn't come, I don't think that he had any intention of doing anything. His advice from friends in government and in industry was to stay away. I think it was a bad signal to send to the summit and I think in the end President Bush will be the loser from not having come here. Am I surprised at the media interest? No, I'm not. Because I think that many people, ordinary people in countries like the United Kingdom, South Africa, Zimbabwe, across the world, many ordinary people are very, very concerned about what is happening to the environment.

    In the ten years since the Rio earth summit on very many indicators our environment, our common, shared environment, has got worse. In many areas poverty has got worse. People will tell you in places like East Asia there are fewer people living in poverty, true, but whether or not that's sustainable I'm not at all sure. In places like Africa poverty is dreadful. And I think there are many people who have been watching and listening to the BBC and logging on and other media who really want to know what's happening, who really care about what should be happening. So I'm not surprised by the media interest but I'm very, very heartened by it.


    Newhost:

    Alex, many thanks indeed. Well, that's all we've time for. My thanks again to Alex Kirby and to all of you who've been sending us e-mails and messages. From me, Karen Allen, good bye.


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