Strong leadership urgently needed, warns report

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 13 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- The loss of political momentum on environmental issues, as evidenced by the recent breakdown of negotiations on an international climate change agreement, calls into question whether the world will be able to reverse worrisome ecological trends, warns a new report released here Saturday.

According to the Worldwatch Institute’s latest “State of the World” report, during the prosperity of the 1990s, governments squandered a historic opportunity to reverse environmental decline.

“If in the current climate of political and economic uncertainty, political leaders were to roll back environmental laws or fail to complete key international agreements, decades of progress could unravel,” says Christopher Flavin, president of the Washington-based think-tank and co-author of the 275-page report.

He says the prospect of having US president-elect George W. Bush in office is worrying many governments about the fate of international environmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement requiring industrialised nations to reduce their heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, which are blamed for global warming.

Recent negotiations on the Protocol collapsed when the United States and Europe could not agree on the details of the treaty.

“The question now is one of leadership,” says Flavin. “Will the United States choose to be a leader of global environmental progress ... or will it be left to other countries to show the way to a sustainable economy in the new millennium?”

According to the report, the latest scientific evidence indicates that many global ecosystems are reaching dangerous thresholds that raise the stakes for policymakers.

The Arctic ice cap, for example, has already thinned by 42%, and 27% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost, suggesting that some of the planet’s key ecological systems are in decline, say the Institute’s researchers.

Another sign of ecological destruction is the unprecedented rate of extinction of frogs and other amphibians worldwide, due to various environmental pressures ranging from deforestation to ozone depletion.

“What is happening to amphibians reflects what is happening to the planet in general,” explains Worldwatch researcher Ashley Mattoon. If the underlying reasons for amphibian decline, including habitat destruction and pollution, are not addressed, she says, there is no way to save these species.

Environmental decline is also exacting a huge toll on people, says the report.

“Environmental degradation is worsening many natural disasters,” says Janet Abramovitz, co-author of the report.

In 1998-1999 alone, more than 120,000 people were killed and millions were displaced by natural disasters, mostly poor people in developing nations in Asia and Latin America.

Deforestation and climate change have increased the deadly impacts of hurricanes and floods, such as 1998’s Hurricane Mitch in Central America. The floods, mudslides and general destruction from the storm cost the region $8.5 billion, equal to the combined GNPs of Honduras and Nicaragua.

“With many life support systems at risk of long-term damage, the choice before today’s political leaders is historic,” says Flavin.

“Do we move forward to rapidly build a sustainable economy or do we risk allowing the expansion in human numbers, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of natural systems to destroy the very foundations of the global economy?”

The report points out several examples of governments that have taken the lead in promoting strong environmental protection policies which benefit the economy.

Iceland, for example, launched a pioneering effort in 1999 to harness its geothermal energy and hydropower to produce hydrogen, which will be used to fuel its automobiles and fishing boats. The goal is to have hydrogen provide 70% of the nation’s energy. The strategy is to begin with buses, followed by passenger cars and fishing vessels, with the goal of completing the transition away from polluting fossil fuels between 2030 and 2040. The effort is attracting investments from major oil and car companies.

The report calls for increased co-operation between the industrial countries of the North and the developing nations of the South. In many international environmental negotiations, finger-pointing has delayed action and slowed the adoption of effective policies, says Worldwatch.

“It is time for industrial countries to accept their historical responsibility for the current state of the planet - and time for developing countries to recognise that they are at great risk from environmental problems but will also benefit from the economic opportunities unleashed by a new development path,” says the report.

Climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, for example, is a problem mostly produced by industrial countries and yet it is developing nations that are likely to feel the most severe effects.

“The densely populated nations of South Asia, East Asia and West Africa, where millions of people live on vast deltas at or below sea level, are most vulnerable to rising sea levels,” says the report.

Governments need to forge strong partnerships and nations need to provide sufficient funds to support the transition to an economy based on renewable energy, like wind, solar and hydrogen, says Worldwatch.

“The failure of many industrial countries to meet the financial commitments they have agreed to under various international agreements and the failure of some developing countries to carry through on political and economic reforms have left a residue of distrust that must be overcome,” says the report.

Environmental leadership from the business sector is also strongly needed, says Worldwatch.

Usually, many firms view their profit-making responsibilities as a serious constraint on their capacity to make environmental change, but this is not necessarily the case, says the report. “Combined with visionary leadership, the profit motive can be channelled to launch businesses toward sustainability,” it says.

Many companies are now employing a “zero-waste” policy which benefits both the environment and the bottomline. By recycling the by-products of production, companies avoid sending waste to landfills - and often generate new revenues in the process.

Asahi Breweries of Japan, for example, sends the dregs of its beer production to cattle raisers as feed, its plastic packing bands to be recycled into carpet, its bottle tops for use in construction fill, and its cardboard for reprocessing into paper.

Zero-waste production is growing quickly in Japan, largely because landfill space is at a premium - the cost of sending waste to landfills more than doubled between 1991 and 1997.

“Sensing the cost savings and marketing advantages in achieving zero-waste production, companies as diverse as Asahi Breweries, Sanyo, Canon and Toyota report having achieved zero-waste production,” says Worldwatch.

But the report says that business leaders are unlikely to undertake environmental initiatives if they are very costly.

“Visionary businesses will need to work with government leaders to reshape the taxes, subsidies and other structures that bias so much of commerce against sustainability, so that the best environmental practices become profitable,” it says.