Mohamed El-Ashry, Chairman and CEO, Global Environment Facility
Richard Benedick, Senior Fellow, World Wildlife Fund
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
RICHARD BENEDICK: Climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of
forests, especially tropical forests, the spread of deserts and erosion, the loss of biological
diversity, the extinction of species of plants and animals. These are the issues that affect
all the nations almost all at the same time. And I certainly think that the debate, both in
the UN fora and at national level and certainly in the growing and strong non-governmental
community, has changed very much since Rio to focus on these kinds of issues.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, “Rio Plus Five”
MOHAMED EL-ASHRY: There are tangible, tangible results throughout the world, but if
you really measure them against the commitments that were made, you know, five years ago, you
realize very quickly that such results and such progress is really on the margins.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on World Affairs and the people who
shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
Remember the Earth Summit? It’s been five years since heads of state from around the world
gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the event officially known as the United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development. The summit produced an ambitious action plan called “Agenda 21”.
It also sparked renewed interest in solving our global environmental crisis. Today we are
joined by two international environmental leaders to discuss the legacy of the Earth Summit
and their hopes for the future. Ambassador Richard Benedick was a special advisor to the head
of the Rio conference and he was the chief U.S. negotiator at the 1987 Montreal protocol on
protecting the ozone layer. He’s also a senior fellow at the World Wildlife Fund.
BENEDICK: The World Wildlife Fund is basically dedicated to conservation of nature in
all of it’s aspects, so biological diversity I’d say would be a prime focus and in this context
it has taken a lively interest in many of the issues that were taken up at Rio which are, had
been traditionally considered peripheral to wildlife. A main example of this would be climate
change. So that WWF has really become quite actively engaged in the promotion of the objectives
of the framework convention on climate change and has attended all of the working group meetings
as well as the conferences of parties and has been an active member of the Climate Action
Network which is an international linkage of environmental organizations that are pushing,
basically for a stronger treaty for stronger controls and limitations on greenhouse gas emissions,
starting of course with carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. In addition, they’ve just launched
a program called “The Global 200,” which is aiming at raising funds, not so much for the World
Wildlife Fund but for the preservation of certain habitats and they’ve identified 200
representative habitats around the world of types of environment of forests, savanna,
semi-desert, each of which is the home to a collection of species. In other words, they’re
not just going after the, the very attractive, the fuzzies and the furries, you know the pandas
and the tigers, or even the endangered species, but rather, which of course is included in
this, the endangered species, but rather a whole of habitat, because you can’t save one
species basically without trying to save all the others with which they’re interlinked in the
food chain and so on. And so they’ve picked out representative areas in every part of the
world and they’re trying to get governments to donate or to set aside these areas as preserves
for the wildlife for the, everything from insects up to the large mammals where they can live
in a pristine state and not be disturbed by the advance of civilization by the almost
inexorable pressures, for example, of population growth. And this is a very, it’s attracted a
lot of attention already. Several counties have donated tens of thousands of acres to this
project to keep whole representative areas of this planet based on their vegetation and their
climate that they would remain intact for all of the species within them. As I say, it’s
gotten a lot of attention and it’s an initiative which is aiming, of course at the year 2000,
in which hopefully all of these, these 200 selected habitats would come under protection of
PORTER: We’ll, we’re also joined by Mr. Mohamed El-Ashry, who’s the Chairman and CEO of
a unique and relatively young organization, the Global Environmental Facility. Tell us about
EL-ASHRY: Well, the Global Environment Facility or the GEF is a young, international
organization, about six years old, that provides financial assistance to developing countries
to assist them in addressing the global environmental agenda, but within the context and the
framework of their own societal developments and priorities. Since Rio, it has been
replenished with a $2 billion trust fund. And it works in the areas of climate change; it
works in the area of biodiversity, and international waters. But it also assists some of the
economies in transitions in the area of ozone depletion. In that sense, it operates as a
financial mechanism for the two international conventions that were signed in Rio, which are
the Climate Change Convention and the Biodiversity Convention. We operate now in about 100
countries, developing countries, and we have 160 member countries. We have committed about
$1.6 billion in close to 200 different projects, but the more important really thing is that
the limited amount of the resources that we have relative to the magnitude of the problems
worldwide, we insist on the leveraging aspect of finance. In other words, for the time being,
every dollar that we spend leverages three dollars from other sources, whether it’s bilateral,
multilateral, private sector, or even national government sources themselves. The other
important principle is that these issues of the global environment and sustainable development
are very complex issues and they cannot really be addressed by one player or one entity alone.
So we also emphasize the building of partnerships: partnerships among governments, private
sectors, non-governmental organizations, and in fact non-governmental organizations play a
very big role in the execution of many of our projects, particularly in the biodiversity area,
including the World Wildlife Fund that Richard represents here.
PORTER: Yes, Mr. Benedick, go ahead.
BENEDICK: I’d like to add something, something else because as Senior Fellow at World
Wildlife Fund I actually do not work full time with them. I have a number of other interests
and I’d like to single out two of them, both very different kinds of organizations which are
also very much related to the follow-up to Rio, to the Earth Summit. One is the Committee for
the National Institute for the Environment. I’m the president of this organization which is a
nationwide network now having the endorsement and the support of well over 350 universities,
environmental organizations, industry, all kinds of groups, local and state and local governments,
everything from the National Council of Mayors to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to a number of
universities and colleges, large and small. And the objective of this Committee for the National
Institute for the Environment is to seek the creation of a new national institution that would
have as its prime and sole purpose the improvement of the scientific basis for environmental
decision making. And this would be an attempt to create something that would do for the environmental
sciences in effect what the National Institutes of Health have done for biomedical research.
Of course, it’s maybe, some might say it’s a quixotic quest because to create a new institution
in this time of budgetary stringency is certainly problematical, but we’ve gotten a lot of
support in Congress. Legislation had been introduced in the last two Congresses and we have
well over 100 Senators and Congressmen who have endorsed the concept and we expect that legislation
will be introduced again in this session. And maybe this time we can put it over the top, that
we can have the hearings and actually bring it to the floor. Among the people supporting it,
by the way, are the Senate Minority Leader, Tom Daschle and a number of Republicans as well.
It’s a bipartisan initiative. The other organization is something in the semi-private sector.
I’m on the International Advisory Board of PATEL, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories
which is affiliated with the international engineering consulting and high technology firm.
And PATEL has really, in the last five years or so, turned around their laboratory, their
scientific research from primarily atomic energy, nuclear waste clean-up in Hanford, the state
of Washington and high level defense contracting, which they still do, but they’ve turned it
around substantially and are getting very much involved in environmental research. Things
like experimenting with new lightweight, but strong materials for perhaps the vehicle of the
future, very much involved in the climate change negotiations as well, coming up with possibly
innovative resolutions to the stalemate and the diplomatic negotiations aiming in particular
at technological solutions. And one of the things that we’re working on now is to try to get
introduced into the protocol negotiations and what will come after the conference of parties
this year, a concept of a technology research protocol in which governments would make a
commitment to increase research in certain directions which could help to smooth the transition
to a fossil free energy in the future world, because the amount of money that’s being spent
for energy research in the modern world is really derisory. I mean, it’s trivial compared to
the problem it’s being faced. And simply setting up targets and time tables for carbon dioxide
emissions may not work if you don’t have the technology that it’s going to enable that
transition to take place, so this has been a relatively neglected area which PATEL is getting
very much engaged in.
PORTER: Hmm, well it sounds like there’s an awful lot going on. I’ll put this question
first to Mr. El-Ashry. Are there tangible results, I mean beyond what we’ve talked about so
far? What are the tangible results that we’ve seen in the five years since Rio?
EL-ASHRY: Well, there are tangible, tangible results throughout the world, but if you
really measure them against the commitments that were made, you know, five years ago, you realize
very quickly that such results and such progress is really on the margins and it’s not at the
core. At the core in defense of the policies that needed to be changed and the sense of slowing
population growth, reducing the emission of carbon dioxide that’s causing climate change,
reducing rates of deforestation. So there has been lots of lip service. But at the same time,
the progress, if you really think in terms of progress, has been more at the local level and
not on the international organization levels. You find more than 100 countries have prepared
their own Agenda 21’s. More than 1200 communities have prepared their own Agenda 21’s or are
in the process of trying to implement them. The GEF is different because it’s new and it has
money as compared to the bigger international organizations that have been suffering from
reduced budgets and so on. So one measure of accomplishment that we have achieved for them in
such a short time is in the area of renewable energy, where with a small amount of money and
in such a short time we are increasing the output of photo voltaic electric power between 5
and 7 times what it existed before. And that’s because of the leveraging approach. In one
project by itself, 200,000 homes, solar homes in the rural areas that are not connected to
any grid of any kind, on an island in Indonesia, are being equipped with photo voltaic cells.
That has really improved the livelihoods of the people. This will cut down on the rate of
deforestation for fuel wood that would allow them to have a source of energy, to have a
television, a refrigerator, and so on. And these are actions that need to be multiplied and
duplicated so many times if we really are going to accomplish the spirit, or even come close
to the spirit of Rio and what as was intended in Rio.
PORTER: Hmm. Mr. Benedick, you served as a special advisor during the Rio conference.
I’m wondering, are you satisfied with what you’ve seen in the five years?
BENEDICK: I would certainly agree with Mohamed that a lot has changed and a lot has
not changed, and you can’t expect to turn around decades or generations of thinking in a two
week conference or even in five years after that. But I think that one can point to some, I
would say mildly encouraging developments since then. There’s a lot of inertia out in the
world and in public opinion and in governments. As soon as you get a downswing in the economy
or even an issue of unemployment as there is in Europe. For example Germany’s commitment I
think to the environment was much stronger in the time leading up to Rio and at Rio than it
is now. And I think it’s directly correlated to the fact that they have now 13% unemployment.
So there is a tendency to take a short term time perspective whereas Rio basically was oriented
toward a longer term. At the same time I think that Mohamed has very perceptively pointed out
that a lot of changes have taken place at the local level and I think that this is the way
things have to happen, from the bottom up in terms of initiatives rather that edicts from the
top down. And the GEF has been actively involved in that as he’s indicated. Some organizations
that never even existed before like the International Council on Local Environment Initiatives,
which is primarily made up of, of mayors and state and local governments all over the world,
they’re much more progressive than the national governments in terms of designing action plans
that are in the concept of sustainable development or trying to reduce the use of fossil fuel
energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I think that’s an encouraging factor. And I think
that also, as Mohamed pointed out, the creation of these national plans, which has taken place
all over the world, makes it more difficult let’s say, than in the past for the debate to be
framed in terms of either in economic growth or environmental protection, as if protecting the
environment is some kind of a luxury that you can only afford when you’re rich. Rather, the
main, one of the main emphases at Rio was that these have to happen simultaneously. They have
to, side by side economic development and environmental protection because if you ignore the
environment, you’re going to end up paying for it sooner or later and it’s going to be much
more costly to your economy. And I think that this change in the nature of the debate is perhaps
one of the most important results from Rio and we’ll see that gradually translated into more
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Richard Benedick
of the World Wildlife Fund and Mohamed El-Ashry of the Global Environmental Facility. Printed
transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast
for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit,
non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs, meant to provoke thought
and encourage dialog on world affairs.
PORTER: The President of the UN General Assembly Risali Ismail said recently, “The
compact of Rio has eroded. The traditional North-South Debate remains unchanged.” Is this
true? I mean do you think the compact has eroded? Has the North-South Debate remained
EL-ASHRY: I’m not sure I would put it in these words, but the debate is not really
going anywhere because it really is focusing on the wrong issues.
PORTER: Again this is Mohamed El-Ashry, head of the Global Environmental Facility.
EL-ASHRY: From the developing countryside, it has concentrated on the transfer of
financial resources from north to south, as if the south does not have an obligation itself
to address the issues of development. True??, there are additional requirements now to make
development sustainable and in terms of facilitating technology transfer and so on. But it
is not necessarily in term of measuring how much money is being transferred right now which
is the wrong equation altogether. From the northern perspective, unfortunately it’s focusing
also on what can we get the developing countries to do based on our agenda and what we want
to see done in the world. And when you look at these new issues of the global environment, of
sustainable development, and they truly required international cooperation, they cannot be
addressed by one nation alone, by one entity alone, or even one region alone. It’s going to
require all the knowledge, all the financial resources, all the human resources in a variety
of ways and in a variety of formulations in order to address these issues and the skill that’s
needed. Yes, they are long term, but we really don’t have that mechanisms right now,
institutional or otherwise, to really move in a big way in that direction. So we’ll continue
to have spotty progress here and there, but not the kind of international cooperation that
moves in a big way from an institutional point of view, from a resources point of view, from a
technology point of view. And there are indeed, that’s required to really address the new
generation of technology, the new generation of development needs for the future as well.
BENEDICK: Well, Risal Ismail, whom you mentioned was very much involved in the unsaid
process. I worked alongside of him in several of the working groups. At that time he was the
ambassador, well, he still is, he was the ambassador from Malaysia to the United Nations.
He’s a superb negotiator and I would say a superb rhetorician-debater and I think that the
quotation that you made I would put in the category of rhetoric and a negotiating angle.
PORTER: This again is Ambassador Richard Benedick, of the World Wildlife Fund.
BENEDICK: Of course, now Risal Ismail is the Chair of the Group of 77, or the chair of
the General Assembly and a very act—, I think prior to that he was Chair of the Group of 77.
He’s reflecting the view, viewpoint of many countries of the south that progress can only be
mentioned, can only be measured in terms of amount of dollars that are transferred from the
North to the South. And of course as Mohamed has so accurately indicated, there’s much more
to it than that and it’s not going to happen quite on those terms because the idea of the
question of aid malaise in the north is very real. Why should the taxpayers of the north
continue to make large transfers when they don’t see tangible results, particularly in the,
in the area of sustainable development. In fact, some critics of this whole debate have
pointed out that foreign aid is basically a transfer of wealth from the poor in the North to
the rich of the South, because a lot of the aid, as we all know in the last several decades,
has gone to enriching families and clans and ruling classes in many of the south and has not
really attracted—that’s why we have so much poverty and so much illiteracy and health
problems that’s one of the reasons I should say, population growth being of course another
very important one. But, I think that again as Mohamed El-Ashry indicated, the whole, the
whole future direction must be in terms of a partnership between North and South and it’s not
just a simple question of transferring “X” amount of dollars, although the South dearly likes
to have a commitment in terms of percent of GNP or Gross National Product or some kind of a
formula that would assure them of a constant supply of resource. At the same time the North
is not without guilt in this in the sense that we have pursued trade policies often in the
North which have restricted the ability of the South to earn income from products that they
can produce from manufactures as well as primary goods. Also we push armaments on them which
is a total waste of resources. You know, the wonderful, Paris Air Show and all these military
trade fairs, well who’s pushing them? These wonderful environmental countries like Sweden and
the United States and even, even, some of the Czechosl-Czech Republic, makes foreign exchange
by selling weapons and the British and everybody’s involved in this. It’s a tremendous waste
of resources from the South. I mean they get in these commitments to buy the weapons and I
think that shouldn’t be encouraged, North and South. And that’s a, if you know, just a little
statistic, that the three main items in international trade as we close the 20th Century, the
three major items are drugs—and I don’t mean aspirin—oil, and armaments. That doesn’t say
much for the state of our society, North and South.
PORTER: Have we in the years following Rio, Mr. Benedick, focused too much on the
development side and not enough on the environment side or would you say that the two have
been balanced? And when I say environment side I mean the traditional environmental issues,
the way we used to think about environment, before anyone heard of sustainable development?
BENEDICK: Well, first of all the traditional environmental issues are different, are a
lot different from the ones that were addressed in Rio, although they’re subsumed in it. In
Rio, we were looking at these long term, as kind of what I would call a new generation of
environmental issues, these long-term, slow developing, very much global in their impact as
opposed to let’s say a local water pollution, or a local municipal air pollution problem.
These are things like climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of forests,
especially tropical forests, the spread of deserts and erosion, the loss of biological
diversity, the extinction of species of plants and animals, these are the issues that affect
all the nations, almost at the same time. And I certainly think that the debate both in the
UN for and at national level and certainly in the growing and strong non-governmental
community has changed very much since Rio to focus on these kinds of issues which are part
and parcel of sustainable development. Sustainable development means economic, the improvement
of economic standards of living without borrowing from the future, without impairing the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs, recognizing there’s going to be many
more people around in the future as well.
PORTER: Mr. El-Ashry, any comment on this development versus environment issue?
EL-ASHRY: Yes. Clearly there is the long term agenda like climate change and biodiversity
and ozone depletion, but the other side of the equation is the environment of the developing
world itself which really is its natural resources. It is not a matter of a rich man’s effort
at all, because without that natural resource base, there can be no development. We are
talking about the soils, we are talking about the water, we are talking about the fisheries,
we are talking about the forests. These are the environment of the developing countries and
while there has been some progress and I hope it’s because of the GEF in connection with the
two conventions, in assisting and enabling every country to prepare its own strategy and
action plan for biodiversity conservation on the one hand and for climate change on the other
hand, which is increasing our whole level of awareness among country officials and bringing
the assistance to take some of these actions that international development institutions have
not truly pursued their incorporation of the traditional environment agenda, the natural
resource management agenda, in their own development assistance and in the actions of the
countries themselves. So it’s like we are seeing switches, one way and then the other,
rather than addressing the total agenda in a very systematic way. Taking the long term of
course, vision in mind, realizing that sustainable development is something to pursue over a
long period of time, but you have to have that basic foundation, the first steps as the
Chinese say, you know every journey starts with a few steps, the first steps in terms of the
policies, the pricing, of these resources. Appropriately removing subsidies, having the
institutions ??. Getting the training to the people who can addresses these issues. It’s
more than one side of the equation. And I really think while there are some efforts in the
right direction, they don’t add up to what is needed to put humanity on that sustainable path.
PORTER: One last, very short question for each of you and I’ll start with Mr. El-Ashry.
In the big cycle of these UN conferences, is it time for another Earth Summit?
EL-ASHRY: Absolutely not. I really think we have the Agenda 21. It got something for
everyone. It’s a matter of having now the political commitment and the will to move forward
on these commitments and these international agreements that have been done including the
Desertification Convention that was completed after Rio, and it’s another tremendous piece of
work to address land degradation, particularly for Sub-Saharan African countries.
PORTER: Mr. Benedick, I’ll give you the final word.
BENEDICK: Let me just say that I agree totally with that. Absolutely not.
PORTER: That is Ambassador Richard Benedick, Senior Fellow at the World Wildlife Fund.
Our other guest was Mohamed El-Ashry, CEO and Chairman of the Global Environment Facility.
For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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