The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development ? WSSD ? took place in Johannesburg, South Africa from Aug. 26 to Sept. 4. Approximately 30,000 attendees, including heads of state and government, non-governmental organizations and business leaders gathered to tackle five of the world’s biggest problems ? water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity and ecosystem Management. WSSD was a follow up of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the “Earth Summit” held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, in recognition of the fact that environmental protection and natural resource management must be integrated with socio-economic issues of poverty and underdevelopment, the international community Agenda 21, an unprecedented global plan of action for achieving economic development while conserving the integrity of natural resources and environment, which is also called “sustainable development.” One of the primary purposes of WSSD was to measure our progress with respect to Rio and to set goals for the near future to solve these immense problems of economic development and environment.

Some key figures were presented at WSSD to illustrate problems that still exist since Rio.

Additionally, 90,000 square kilometers are deforested each year, and the surface of the Earth has increased in temperature by 0.6 ?C this past century, as a result major glaciers are retreating. Natural disaster insurance payments have increased from $2 billion in the 1980s to $30 billion in the 1990s. These are signs of global climate change.

One of the reasons we have done poorly with regard to the promises made in Rio is that, while the developed countries pledged to spend 0.7 percent of their gross national product to address some of these issues, many of them failed to honor it in reality. The U.S. contribution fell more than half of the original amount they proposed. In Johannesburg, a number of new proposals have been made ? by the developed countries ? many delegates, including myself, were disappointed at few commitments agreed upon this time.

The U.S. initiative included a commitment of financial resources amounting to $970 million over the next three years for water programs. $43 million in 2003 for investment in clean energy initiative for increasing energy efficiency and reduce air pollution. $90 million for hunger in Africa, $53 million for the next four years for the Congo Basin forests and $1.2 billion in 2003 for health issues such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

While the U.S. had useful initiatives and made substantial progress in the water and sanitation sector, they were resistant to agreeing with a good number of issues which resulted in much of the energy, climate change and poverty alleviation targets set without specific timetables or specific wording. Often the U.S. would endorse the agreements where the language was watered down or if the agreement removed specific timetables. This caused much outrage among the Europeans and the developing countries that made large concessions in order for the U.S. to agree. Some OPEC countries and Japan also resisted to some energy and climate issues.

The summit made some progress, but not as much as many would have liked to see happen.

Most of the agreements were reworded vaguely and had no timetable at all. There was strong anti-US sentiment because of this. While Colin Powell was speaking, the booing got so loud in the hall that he had to stop his speech several times.

One man was ejected from the conference hall because of excessive interruption while General Powell was speaking. At another time, some Swedish students gave me a pin saying “90+ World leaders, where’s W?”

Some people saw the summit as a beginning not as an end. They see sustainable development as the alternative which addresses the problems of the world today. Even though there wasn’t sufficient agreement, conference leaders were calling for the people of the world to “think globally, and act locally” ? meaning that people should push for change in their local area whether it is to promote recycling or telling Kodak to stop releasing harmful emissions.

Nithin Desai, the Secretary General of WSSD, said that we have seen communism fail and that we are seeing capitalism fail ? this is why sustainable development through economic growth, social development and environmental protection, should be the new paradigm for the new millennium.

Abraham is a senior and can be reached at

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