Don't snipe, we're getting there!

Observations on the Johannesburg summit

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was a landmark achievement for multilateralism in which a complicated and comprehensive agreement was reached by consensus among 180 countries. Never before has civic society - NGOs and business - come together with governments and international organisations to form so many partnerships for "sustainable development".

My experience from the Kyoto negotiations in 1997 is not to judge success or failure by the opening negotiating demands - they are always unrealistic. At Kyoto, the US offered a 0 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Europe demanded 15 per cent. We agreed 6 per cent for Japan, 7 per cent for the US, 8 per cent for the EU. The 5 per cent cut in total world emissions was not enough, but it was a step forward.

Five years on, politics is still the art of the possible. If we underestimate what we have achieved, then criticism becomes corrosive rather than constructive.

After Johannesburg, we have new targets and action plans on sanitation, fish stocks, chemicals, biodiversity and natural resources. We have a wide range of partnerships between governments and civic society. And world leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to the UN's Millennium Development Goals: by 2015, to halve the numbers living in extreme poverty, provide primary education for all children, reduce child mortality by two-thirds, halve the numbers without clean drinking water and halve the numbers who suffer from hunger.

The summit has confirmed the importance of social justice and investment in people, as well as in economic development and the environment. It has also confirmed the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" - "a progressive universalism" whereby developed countries take on the bigger responsibility to deliver change. Greater prosperity for all, but more help for those who need it most. Progress had been slow until the UN's Earth Summit+5 conference in 1997, which marked a step change. Later that year, the Kyoto Protocol moved from the principle of voluntary action to legally binding commitments and targets. Further developments since then have moved us towards greater access to markets and increased development finance.

The UK has been a leader in all this. We were a leading force at Kyoto. We have led on debt relief for the poorest countries. We are increasing our aid budget to nearly £5bn a year. We are pressing for trade liberalisation, greater access to markets and the reform of farming subsidies. Our climate-change programme goes well beyond our UN and EU greenhouse gas reduction targets of 8 per cent and 12.5 per cent by 2010.

But the test of international agreements is what happens on the ground. Since the first Earth Summit, in Rio in 1992, the numbers living in poverty have dropped by 100 million, and about 440 million in developing countries have gained access to clean drinking water. But we need to do much more. It is nonsense to say that Johannesburg agreed no targets. On top of the new targets, leaders affirmed the Millennium Development Goals.

As Tony Blair made clear, partnerships with business and civic society are essential. Finance and aid can only do so much. Five years ago, many businesses opposed Kyoto. Who would have thought that Greenpeace and Shell would share a platform at Johannesburg to agree action on climate change (in refreshing contrast to Friends of the Earth in London, which launched a balloon caricature of a businessman and his profits)? But it is by no means a straightforward choice for businesses and governments to put their energies into sustainable development. Some NGOs have done excellent work; others like to snipe from the sidelines.

Sustainable development requires partnership. And that means getting over a consistent message that it matters. When we held the Children's Parliament in 1999, I was struck by how much they cared for the environment. But it is a difficult political challenge to translate that enthusiasm into action on whatever scale - whether it's recycling Coke cans, taking up road space for bicycle tracks or cutting EU agricultural subsidies. If governments have to fight every inch of the way against cynical opposition as well as vested interests, such changes simply won't happen.

To me, Johannesburg was a step forward in establishing a new global architecture whereby globalisation can become a force for good. Detailed negotiations on the environment, trade and finance will continue within the Kyoto, Doha, Monterrey and other frameworks designed to ensure progress for all, though more for those in greatest need, without further degradation of our environment.

Johannesburg is also an end to my personal five-year journey to secure greater global consensus. I will continue to press the case for it wherever I can. But I now wish to concentrate my energies, in particular, on implementing such policies at the national and local level. My top priority is to work with local authorities, business, developers and NGOs to provide homes and communities that translate our commitment to sustainable development into reality.

Let us think globally and act locally, with greater consensus and less destructive criticism.

John Prescott is the Deputy Prime Minister

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