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Week of 13 September 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 3


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Environmental progress since Rio

By Tim Stoddard

When Adil Najam landed in Johannesburg two weeks ago to attend the United Nations' 10-day World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), he was pleasantly surprised to find Boston University represented at the global gathering. Several thousand copies of the leading environmental policy journal Environment, the cover story coauthored by Najam and six of his graduate students, were circulating among the delegates. Najam, a CAS assistant professor of international relations and environmental policy, attended the WSSD to launch a UN-sponsored book project titled Civic Entrepreneurship, and says that the article, "From Rio to Johannesburg:
Progress and Prospects," was well received because it addresses a question that became the theme of the conference: are megasummits really worth the effort?


This question surfaced last semester at the first meeting of Najam's graduate seminar in environmental politics, as students expressed interest in what had been achieved since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero. The discussion grew into a collaborative project that surveyed experts in business, government, and nongovernment organizations about what they thought had been achieved since Rio.

At first, the survey was purely academic. The class studied successful survey designs, debated their drafts, and tested prototypes on sample groups. "All of us got really involved in drafting the survey and figuring out who to send it to," says Janice Poling (GRS'03). "Then when the results started coming back, it took on a life of its own."

Over 250 recipients responded. "I think that was very fulfilling for the students," Najam says. "We thought that most of these people wouldn't give us the time of day. But here they were - the people whose textbooks the students were studying in class, and about whom they were reading - sending back thoughtful answers."

As more responses poured in, the academic endeavor became professional. "Once we started getting responses from distinguished heads of state and presidents of multinational oil corporations, we realized, 'Hey, this is real,'" says Daniel Straub (GRS'03), an assistant professor of naval science at BU, who is pursuing a master's degree in the joint program. "This was no longer students sitting in a classroom. It really gave us a sense of purpose."

The survey responses paint a nuanced picture of what has happened in the decade separating Rio and Johannesburg. A global environmental agenda is beginning to take shape, but significant differences persist between the priorities of developing countries of the south and the more industrialized countries in the north. Both rate poverty alleviation as the number-one goal in sustainable development. But after that, priorities split along geographic lines. Debt relief and technology transfer were two staple southern demands. Freshwater security, overpopulation, and renewable energy were deemed important issues in the north.

  Daniel Straub (GRS'03) (left), Janice Poling (GRS'03), Adil Najam, and Naoyuki Yamagishi (GRS'03) planning a follow-up survey of world environmental leaders. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The survey also suggests that the Earth Summit in Rio is regarded as a success even though progress towards realizing its goals has been less than spectacular. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents said that Rio was monumental or very significant, but only 6 percent think significant progress has been made since then.

It's not surprising, then, that many respondents were cynical about the prospects for Johannesburg. Nearly half said that it would be insignificant or only marginally significant. African respondents, despite being summit hosts, were the least hopeful, Najam says, and that sentiment carried over into the summit.

"The level of enthusiasm and hopefulness at Johannesburg was not at all similar to the Earth Summit," he says. "Rio was naïve to some degree, but in a very inspiring way. There was a sense at that time that we were at the cusp of history, that anything was possible. The Cold War had just finished. All of the forces of the world were aligned to give people a sense of hope and enthusiasm. This was 2002, after 10 years of Rio's promises going unfulfilled. It was quite clear that lots of things are not possible, and we have to do the best with what we have."

Going into Johannesburg, respondents said, rather hesitantly, that environmental megasummits really are worth the trouble because they raise awareness, place new issues on the global agenda, and encourage dialogue between disparate interests. Several of the students involved in the project are now planning with Najam a shorter follow-up survey that will gauge reactions to the Johannesburg summit to see whether that cautious optimism will push the Rio legacy forward.

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13 September 2002
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