U.N. special session fails to generate commitments from North

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 27 (G-77) - The U.N.'s Special Session on Environment and Development failed to generate any significant commitments from the Northern countries despite the presence of more than 40 heads of states and dozens of Cabinet ministers.

The Session, which was intended to follow up on environmental commitments five years after the Rio 'Earth Summit', failed to broker agreement on climate control, a convention to protect forests, a tax on aviation fuel or funding by the industrialised world of environmentally friendly development in the South.

In perhaps the most significant sign of the meeting's collapse, diplomats here scrapped a five-page ''political statement'' that was supposed to display international unity to address environmental woes.

The conference ''really reflects the breakdown of goodwill between the North and the South,'' said Martin Khor of the Malaysia-based Third World Network. In that sense, he said, the failure of the talks at least offer the opportunity for nations to ponder why their environmental efforts have run aground so that they can mend their cooperation on those issues.

The G-77 was upset that, instead of abiding by Rio targets by which they should spend 0.7 percent of their gross national products on official development assistance (ODA) to the developing world, the industrialised countries have actually decreased ODA spending to a paltry 0.27 percent.

''What we have witnessed in the five years after Rio has been a nearly complete halt to international dialogue on environment and sustainable development,'' President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), complained.

''It's an abdication of responsibility and a tremendously squandered opportunity,'' Clifton Curtis, political advisor for Greenpeace international, said of the meagre results.
Blame for the lack of results has fallen on all sides: the United States, for opposing everything from climate control targets to an aviation fuel tax proposed to garner funds for environmental programmes in the South; the EU, for pushing a forestry convention before other sides understood what it would achieve; developing nations, for refusing to consider most concrete steps until more ODA materialised.

But for many environmentalists, the story was a simple one: the South had no incentive to agree with the North after five years of broken promises about cutting their own consumption levels and funding environmental activities in the developing world.
''It's the classic case of a failure to do what you promised to do rebounding back on you,'' Shepherd said.

More importantly, whether issues were resolved or not, many officials -- including all of the Group of Seven leaders and most other European heads of government -- put their nations' progress, or lack of it, on the environment into the spotlight. ''What this meeting does is that it creates a sense of expectation in the negotiating process," said U.N. Under-Secretary-General Nitin Desai.

Climate change emerged, at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) which concluded on 27 June, as the most high-profile and controversial of all the sectoral issues being negotiated. It was also one of the last issues where agreement was reached, on night of 27 June.

The issue was highly charged because UNGASS became an arena for countries to lobby their respective positions and have an edge, ahead of the last lap of preparations for the December 1997 Kyoto meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Climate Change Convention.

The Kyoto session is expected to adopt a protocol for developed countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

However, the case for specified targets was already lost, before the UNGASS started, at the Group of Seven Summit in Denver. After a round of intense fights among the leaders, the Communique of the "Denver Summit of the Eight" only committed the G7 countries to emission reductions by year 2010 that are "meaningful, realistic and equitable", but without specifying the reduction rates. The refusal of the US to agree to specified reduction rates, or come forward with its own targets, became the reason for it to be singled out (by NGOs, the media and other delegations) as the country blocking meaningful environmental commitments at UNGASS.

Climate change is emerging as perhaps as the most economically and politically contentious and significant of all the global environmental issues because the decisions taken on countries' emission limits or reductions will have substantial implications on industrial production and overall economic growth, particularly in developed countries.