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The Road from Rio: The success of the Earth Summit depends on how well we follow through on its principles and programs

by William K. Reilly
[EPA Journal - September/October 1992]

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the "Earth Summit," was a watershed event in environmental history. The conference, held in Rio de Janeiro last June, also represented a diplomatic breakthrough that opened up the possibility for a new era of global economic growth coupled seriously with environmental stewardship.

Now the world community is distracted by pressing political and economic problems: the turmoil of civil war and the threat of economic collapse in Eastern Europe; political scandals and an overextended budget in Japan; high unemployment and second thoughts about the extent of integration desirable in the European Community; and here in the United States, absorption with reinvigorating the economy and effecting a presidential transition. They will test the depth of commitments solemnly announced in Rio. These are not the best of times for making environmental history. Nevertheless, this year in Copenhagen the developed nations took further aggressive--and expensive--actions to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals and to create a permanent fund to help developing countries do the same. I think Planet Earth just passed the first post-Rio test!

More than 170 countries met in Rio for one of the most important multinational conferences in history. We did so in recognition of the potential dangers to human survival and the impediments to economic opportunity that come from the poisoning of our Earth, the disruption of our planet's natural systems, the degradation of human and ecological health, and the depletion of our productive natural resources.

The Rio conference was intended to promote better integration of nations' environmental goals with their economic aspirations. Ambitions for Rio ran high, and much was accomplished. While the hopes of some developing nations for vast commitments of new foreign assistance did not materialize, what was extraordinary to me was how many expectations were met--and how much the world did achieve.

  • Framework Convention on Climate Change. More than 150 countries made commitments to decrease greenhouse gases, prepare national action plans, and undertake much needed scientific research and monitoring. The climate convention puts us on a course to address the critical issue of global warming. Its first test will be the timing and quality of national action plans. The U.S. action plan will be ready in January.

  • Convention on Biological Diversity. This treaty addresses the problem of species loss worldwide, with a commitment to national plans and conservation strategies. The United States' decision not to sign was the subject of intense controversy and criticism. All the other "G-7" nations--the economic superpowers--and nearly all developing countries did sign. I believe this convention ultimately will be adapted to meet U.S. concerns, which are centered on this convention's ambiguity regarding the protection of intellectual property rights, inadequate funding mechanisms, and selective, negative characterization and regulation of biotechnology. Meanwhile, the United States will continue to respect, even go well beyond, the principles of the treaty; U.S. commitments to protecting wildlife remain unsurpassed anywhere in the world. As the Director General of the United Nations Environment Program, Dr. Mustafa Tolba, recently reminded me, it was the United States which initiated the call for a treaty on biodiversity, a call he greeted skeptically and only later acceded to. I believe that all parties are uncomfortable with the existing exclusion of the United States and that America's voice will yet be heard in the councils of the Treaty Parties.

  • Forest Management. The United States was a key participant in achieving agreement among all countries on principles of forest management. The principles are an advance, even if second best after a worldwide convention on forests. President Bush had proposed such a convention two years earlier, but developing countries are simply not yet ready for it, fearing a threat to their sovereignty in the global concern for better forest conservation and sustainable use. I was frankly startled by the depth of developing countries' anxiety about the industrialized world's concern for forests. Many poorer forest-owning nations genuinely fear an "internationalization" of their natural resources.

    At Rio, the United States also proposed a Forests for the Future initiative which aims to promote sustainable use and conservation through bilateral partnerships with developing countries. Working steadily with these nations on mutually selected projects, we may both quiet the fears and advance the cause.

  • Agenda 21. This was perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the conference: an ambitious, 900-page action plan for protecting the atmosphere, oceans, and other global resources. Many of the ideas--community right-to-know, compiling information about toxic releases, environmental impact statements--originated in the United States. Agenda 21 represents an extraordinary new global consensus on standards against which to measure the environmental performance of governments. No doubt the press, non-governmental groups, and the business community will mine these documents for years to come. The human rights commitments of the 1970s and 1980s, the Helsinki Accords, and others, offer a model for how committed nongovernmental interests can confer authority on moral obligations and translate them into new policies.

From a global perspective, the Earth Summit marked the arrival of environmental concerns on the international stage as a major new consideration in foreign policy. The presence in Rio of foreign ministers, prime ministers, development ministers and presidents made the point that environmental questions must be accommodated in decisions and policies affecting trade, energy, agriculture, and economic development.

One of the most important lessons I took away from Rio was the conviction that the future of global environmental protection, especially in the developing countries, will not be achieved by financial aid; it will be assured by trade. If there is a single good example of that, it is Mexico. Significant amounts of capital, more than $25 billion, have flowed into Mexico in the last few years as a consequence of a climate of friendless, of openness to trade. Protection for intellectual property, privatization of inefficient--often polluting--state industries, reduction of non-tariff trade barriers, agreements with creditors and the International Monetary Fund, and proposals to reduce tariffs have won confidence and attracted capital on a scale far beyond what aid might have brought. And not coincidentally, Mexico is now spending 1 percent of its GNP on the environment, which is more than most developed nations spend!

Now, in the aftermath of UNCED, the real work begins. The success of the Earth Summit will be determined by how well the nations of the world carry out the principles of sustainable development they agreed to at Rio. This is not a challenge only for the developing world. We in the United States--at the federal and state levels, in communities throughout our country--have a central role to play in the process. The Earth Summit counsels all of us to reach new s of creativity and achievement. The responsibilities and challenges before us have never been greater.

One of our key tasks is to move ahead with the new approaches to environmental protection that we at EPA have begun to apply over the last few years--approaches that are more risk-oriented, more inclusive, more attuned to economic consequences.

A good example is our emphasis on addressing the ecological stresses affecting the ecological stresses affecting whole natural systems, such as the Great Lakes, on a geographic rather than piecemeal basis. The high priority now being given to the Great Lakes in all EPA programs greatly improves our chances of keeping this resource--the source of food, water, recreation, and renewal for millions of people--intact, healthy, and productive for our own and future generations.

In terms of budget resources and enforcement effort, the Great Lakes program is unprecedented. In 1991, fines and penalties in the Great Lakes region alone surpassed the national totals of only two years earlier. Greater coherence of pollution control and fish advisory policies among the Great Lakes states, closer coordination of Canadian and U.S. priorities, and aggressive pollution prevention programs by automobile companies, chemical plants, and pulp-and-paper mills add up to a new kind of environmentalism--a synergistic combination of highly diverse activities directed toward a common goal, improving and maintaining the health of a large productive ecosystem.

EPA is using the Great Lakes model to address other especially sensitive or threatened natural resources--Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento River estuary, Long Island Sound, and many more.

Another initiative given new impetus by the Earth Summit is pollution prevention. EPA already has developed a range of successful, voluntary efforts to reduce or eliminate waste at the outset of the manufacturing and service cycles. Our Green Lights program encourages the use of energy-efficient lighting wherever it is economically feasible. EPA's recently unveiled Energy Star Computers program will save energy by producing computers that "sleep" when not in use.

All of our pollution prevention and waste minimization programs help reduce energy consumption while also reducing the release of harmful chemicals into the environment. These efforts will play a key role in enabling the United States to meet the goal of the Climate Change Convention: to cut greenhouse gas emissions using a benchmark of 1990 levels.

Still another initiative is EPA's voluntary 33/50 Program, in which 1,000 manufacturing companies have pledged to reduce their emissions of 17 high-priority toxic pollutants such as benzene, lead, mercury, and cyanide by at least one-third by the end of this year, and by least 50 percent by the end of 1995. Commitments made to this program to date will result in a projected reduction of more than 350 million pounds a year of toxic pollutants by 1995. In signing on to these voluntary programs, companies like Monsanto, General Dynamics, Polaroid, AT&T, American Cyanamid, Honda of America, and others are recognizing, either explicitly of implicitly, that the only secure path to long-term economic growth is the "green" path.

The success of these pollution prevention programs suggests a new dynamic may be at work in U.S. companies: They're finding ways to reduce pollution by redesigning processes, improving efficiency, and cutting the costs of raw materials, disposal, and potential liability.

Much that went on in Rio, in fact, reflected the growing recognition by the private sector that companies must begin to incorporate environmental concerns into their decision making if they are to stay competitive in years to come. International business groups, such as the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), led by Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny, were instrumental at Rio in defining what environmental leadership in industry means. The book developed by Schmidheiny and the BCSD, Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment, has become required reading for enlightened business leaders in the 1990s; it lays out the path for the future of environmental entrepreneurship.

Another key to sustaining the momentum of the Earth Summit into the next century is an informed, educated citizenry. Environmental education programs need to nurture a more sophisticated understanding of risk and the principles of ecology. We must help students develop a critical perspective, one that is aware of the limitations and ambiguities of science and appreciates the rigor of scientific methods.

Above all, we must help our citizens grasp the environmental reality of the 1990s: The greatest threats in the developed world no longer come from the belching smokestacks and oozing sewer outfalls of the 1960s--most of which have been tamed or eliminated--but from the cumulative impact of millions of individual actions. It is our lifestyles, our habits, our daily choices, which must be informed by an environmental ethic: the choice to recycle used oil instead of pouring it down the drain; to buy an energy-efficient light bulb or refrigerator; to minimize the use of harmful chemicals on our lawns and flowers; to practice regular inspection and maintenance of our cars to help curb air pollution; to recognize that the character of our land can discipline our expectations for its use. Over the long term, our environmental education goal should be to instill a personal ethic of stewardship among our people.

To fulfill the promise of the Earth Summit, we will have to bend our minds and our money to the task, just as we did in cleaning up our own environment. I believe that environmental policy is the single most successful of all U.S. domestic policies of the past 20 years. What can you think of that compares with it in producing real results? The United States was the first country to enact national environmental laws, and environmental conditions today are far better than they were 20 years ago--in urban air and water quality, in nature protection, and the revival of endangered wildlife.

Most important, we made this environmental progress while our economy continued to grow. Our history shows us that economic growth and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand. Economic growth financed environmental progress, and in turn economic development became healthier, more humane, and congenial. The post-Rio world will demand a new sophistication and capacity to integrate economic priorities with new international environmental priorities on the part of governments and their leaders. The experience of the United States has a great deal to offer other countries.

For our part, we in the United States, as I noted earlier, have just won international agreements on a 1995 phaseout of ozone-depleting substances and we will continue to work with industry on developing safe substitutes. We will advance the Forests for the Future initiative President Bush announced at Rio; we will encourage the transfer of U.S.-developed "green" technologies to developing countries, so they can pursue their development in a way that is sustainable over the long term; we will continue to lead the world in promoting community right-to-know internationally, both to help the environment and to strengthen democracy.

The Earth Summit presented an unprecedented opportunity for governments of all nations, at all levels, to pursue strategies of sustainable development. The question we must ask ourselves today is: How do we expand our economies to meet the aspirations of our people, while still protecting human health and the natural resources on which lasting economic growth depends? How well we answer this question will define our quality of life in the 21st century.