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Sustainable Development at the Houston Seven Power Summit

John Kirton

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Houston as Sustainable Development Progress

While environmentalists and editorialists impatient for clear, concrete, far-reaching action viewed Houston as an environmental failure, those with a more developed understanding, plurilateral, summit diplomacy in general, and the seven-power summit in particular, should see such judgments as, at best, incomplete. It is certainly true that the seven-power summit can, very occasionally and usually in crisis situations, arrive at big package deals with detailed targets and timetables for reliable national implementation. It is also true that the media and other political critics are an essential part of the process of inspiring results-oriented summits from those seven leaders who claim their legitimacy from the fact that they represent the world's seven largest industrial democracies.

However where the summit as an institution is most necessary and effective is in the earlier stages of the long road to government programs and public acclaim. Its key role comes in identifying, priorizing, and defining the boundaries of items for international action (legitimation, agenda-setting, and parameter- setting), defining fora and deadlines for achieving results (process-setting), and arriving at interim, component agreements to help bring these processes to ultimate success (consensus-building). By these standards appropriate to the summit as a unique international institution - Houston was a substantial, if uneven, sustainable development success.

A key function of the summit, accomplished before the meeting itself even begins, is to provide an action- forcing deadline that forces leaders and national bureaucracies to address often hitherto neglected issues, to arrive internally at positions that will be internationally negotiable or at least explicable, and to do so in the knowledge that the result will have to withstand the scrutiny of the several thousand journalists attending the event. Here the Houston summit, through its sherpa preparatory process and the politics of expectations management can be credited with two major achievements - the reversal of the US refusal to contribute to a third world CFC substitution fund, and the Canada-US agreement to open negotiations on an acid rain accord.

It is possible that the CFC reversal would have taken place in the absence of the Houston summit, as part of American reluctance to make a commitment at Bergen stemmed from a desire to commit in a comprehensive, United Nations-mandated and focused forum where its pledge would inevitably be seen as a precedent for action on other global environmental issues. However well before the London conference, where the American reversal took place, those managing the US summit preparatory process in the National Security Council were confident that such a reversal would take place prior (but close) to the Houston summit, both to exempt Bush from foreign criticism and give him an easy success as an environmentalist. Internationally, the summit preparatory process, as described above, provided a channel for the most powerful foreign leaders, both directly and through the sherpa process, to personally bring pressure to bear on the President for a US contribution. And internally, to a President prone to the argument that the US should not give money to an India and Pakistan who would both benefit from CFC substitution and who were wasting money arming themselves to the teeth to war with each other over Kashmir, the summit provided a set of personal advisers (the sherpa and State Department team) apart from Sununu (who had automatic access), and a set of public pressures (the image of George Bush at the summit he was hosting in his own hometown), which brought additional and ultimately more potent considerations to bear.

The second action-forcing achievement was the announcement by President Bush and Prime Minister Mulroney at their bilateral meeting in Houston the day before the summit opened to begin negotiations on an acid rain accord. Skeptics might well argue that such negotiations would have taken place in any event on the basis of US national legislation already agreed to with Congress, and that this agreement was part of Bush's stage management strategy to give him an early summit environmental accomplishment, and thus remove the incentive to move on more important issues. However the agreement did represent a change in the previous United States position that negotiations would not open until Congress had passed the agreed- upon revisions to the Clean Air Act. Moreover Senator Baucus, responsible for guiding the legislation through the Congress, said the agreement would give added incentive to Congress to pass the Clean Air Act. And the otherwise uninvolved William Reilly was thus able to fly to Ottawa the following week to begin the negotiations as soon as possible. To Prime Minister Mulroney, who had spent half a decade inching the US forward on the acid rain issue, any increase in the pace would have represented a meaningful achievement.

At a second level, the sherpa preparatory process forced the personal representatives to take up the key issues of global warning and to search, however agonizingly, for areas of consensus. It also enabled them to lock in early areas of relatively easy but still substantial agreement. At the first sherpa meeting, held in early January 1990 in Key West, Florida, the sherpas identified the environment as one of the three big summit issues, on the grounds that domestic publics were still engaged in the issue, and that their heads' Paris performance had raised expectations. Moreover, they were aware that after the easy victories of Paris, which merely tasked international organizations to do things and committed summit countries to nothing, Houston's record would have to be more concrete to satisfy public demands. At the same time, it was clear that those worried about the economic impact of climate change action held the upper hand in the US administration, and that progress here would be slow.

At the second sherpa meeting held in San Francisco, environmental issues took a back seat to questions of east-west relations. However at the third sherpa meeting, held in Paris in May, the impasse on the issue of climate change came to the fore. Although all agreed this was a major issue, they agreed on little else. America's colleagues left the meeting knowing the subject would be a major focus at the subsequent sherpa meeting, and a major challenge for the US as host. The Americans left knowing they were in a minority of one, that the summit would have to achieve a consensus view, and that to do so all would have to compromise, with the Americans as the odd man out compromising the most. In addition the Paris sherpa meeting made rapid progress on agreement to take action on tropical rainforests, an issue of particular concern to the Germans and Japanese. Subsequent sherpa meetings codified this progress, while leaving the central issue of climate change unresolved.

At the summit itself, despite the competing claims of agricultural subsidies, aid to the Soviet Union and aid to China, environmental issues received extensive and serious discussion among the leaders and their sherpas. Environment issues commanded much of the leader's attention in their discussion in the Tuesday afternoon session. They took much of the sherpas' time during the ensuing night when they struggled to draft a communiqué their leaders could endorse the next morning. And the leaders took up the subject that final morning, as all items remaining unresolved ("square bracketed" in summit parlance) at dawn dealt with the environment.

With the release of the final communiqué at noon on Wednesday, July 11, it was clear that the Houston summit had succeeded in securing significant attention for environmental issues, introducing new items onto the global environmental agenda setting priorities among them, defining processes to deal with them, forwarding consensus on key issues such as global warning, and agreeing to action on important questions such as the world's forests. (Table A) summarizes the treatment of environmental issues in the Economic Declaration of the Houston Summit.

The three and a half pages and thirteen paragraphs devoted to environmental issues in the declaration made this subject the single largest concern of the communiqué. The environment thus came ahead of such traditional economic subjects as developing countries (ranked second with two and a half pages and 14 paragraphs), and trade (ranked third with two and a half pages and 12 paragraphs).

For the second year in a row, the environment also appeared in the summit's introductory sections, which set the defining priorities and principles for the leaders' work. The summit's third paragraph recognized that "sustainable economic prosperity" depended, among other things, "on an environment safeguarded for future generations". Thus the core principles of sustainable development - the integration of environmental and economic considerations, and the acceptance of custodianship for future generations - were explicitly affirmed as fundamental to the summit's direction.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Houston communiqué was the spread of explicit references from the separate environmental section to the economic sections of the document - a recognition that environmental considerations were relevant to previously self-contained economic subjects. Whereas none of the economic sections of the Paris communiqué had had such environmental recognitions or reminders, Houston had four.

Of the four two dealt with Eastern and Central Europe. Paragraph 37 recognized that the countries in Eastern and Central Europe faced "major problems in cleaning their environment. It will be important to assist the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to develop the necessary policies and infrastructure to confront those environmental policies." Paragraph 38 stated: "We also welcome the recent initiatives in regional cooperation, e.g.- in transport and environment."

The other two dealt with developing countries. Paragraph 48 noted: 'The IDA replenishment of ... last December ... marks the incorporation of environmental concerns into development lending..." Paragraph 57 stated, somewhat cautiously, '...the recent U. S. Enterprise for the Americas initiative to support investment reform and the environment in Latin America needs to be given careful consideration by Finance Ministers."

Although the Paris communiqué represented a major advance in moving environmental considerations from their environmental ghetto and having them penetrate economic subjects, its progress on this front remained limited. All of the four references dealt not with existing policies but with new summit subjects, new program, or new monies. Moreover in the 12 paragraphs on the Intemational Trading System, and the 2 paragraphs on Direct Investment, as well as on other less environmentally- related economic subjects,there was not a single reference to environmental concerns.

A further significant feature of the Houston communiqué was its move from a "laundry list" to a "priorities" approach to the global environmental agenda. At Paris, the leaders had been late to realize the burgeoning public concern in their countries for environmental matters. They had thus looked to Canada, the country with the most summit experience in environmental matters, to draft a communiqué which noted, at considerable length but with no particular priority or integration the set of environmental issues most prominent in each of the summit countries. In preparing for Houston, Canada and other environmental activists had pushed strongly for a communiqué that was designed not for domestic political consumption but one that would define priorities for international action. They were largely successful. Paragraph 62, which opened the communiqué's environmental section, singled out "climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, marine pollution, and loss of biological diversity" as the key issues requiring "closer and more effective international co-operation and concrete action."

Most importantly, paragraph 62, in a major advance, defined a key principle or decision rule to guide such co-operation and action. It read: "We agree that, in the face of threats of irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty is no excuse to postpone actions which are justified in their own right." Although the final phrase represented substantial American-generated qualifier, the acceptance of the overwhelming magnitude of the threat and of the uncertainty principle as a basis for further decisionmaking and action was a major American concession and summit advance.

Paragraph 63 noted that the issue of climate change was "of key importance" and committed the members to "common efforts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases; such as carbon dioxide." Although it did not specify targets and timetables for actual reductions (as Germany had wished), it did speak of "strategies and measures", of "stabilizing" as well as "limiting," greenhouse gas emissions, and of three deadlines for decision and action. The first was the "opportunity" provided by the Second World Climate Conference. The second was a 1992 date for the completion of a framework convention on climate change to be negotiated under UNEP and WMO auspices. And the third was a declaration that "Work on appropriate implementing protocols should be undertaken as expeditiously as possible and should consider all sources and sinks." While the latter phraseology was a concession to John Sununu, the absence of a demand that such work should "comprehensively" consider all such sources and sinks, and the injunction for immediate action, represented a major environmental success.

Paragraph 64 applauded recent progress on the protection of the ozone layer. Paragraph 65, reflecting the perspectives of Japan's Science and Technology Agency even more than those of the United States, emphasized the need for international co-operation on science, new technologies and economic research.

Paragraphs 66, 67 and parts of 68 dealt with forests. In an advance on Paris, these paragraphs included temperate as well as tropical forests as areas of concem and declared the summit Members ready for a new north-south dialogue on this subject, for a pilot project with Brazil to preserve tropical rainforests, and for the commencement of negotiations on a global forest convention or agreement to be completed by 1992.

Paragraph 69, dealing with marine pollution, went beyond Paris to call for a comprehensive strategy to deal with land-based sources of pollution, to criticize "unregulated fishing practices", and to support the work of regional fisheries organizations in this respect. Paragraph 70 noted, in deference to French and Japanese interests in particular, that nuclear energy could "play a significant role in reducing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions."

Paragraph 71 dealt with the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. It began with a clear statement that "Co-operation between developed and developing countries is essential to the resolution of global environmental problems." Whereas the Paris communiqué had expected the 1992 UN Conference only to "give additional momentum to the protection of the global environment," the Houston Declaration identified it as "an important opportunity to develop widespread agreement on common action and coordinated plans." It further suggested it consider the conclusions of the Sienna Forum on the International Law of the Environment. Together with the use elsewhere in the communiqué of 1992 as the standard deadline for the completion of work, this paragraph did much to legitimize the 1992 conference as the central forum and action-forcing event for global environmental decisionmaking.

Paragraph 72 discussed environmental assistance to developing countries. It called for the strengthening of multilateral development banks in the field of environmental protection, and declared "debt-for-nature swaps can play a useful role." It concluded vath the words "We will examine how the World Bank can provide a coordinating role for measures to promote environmental protection." "Through, for example, a proposed Global Environmental Facility," the words ensconced in square brackets that ended that senetence in the draft the sherpas delivered to their heads the final morning, were absent from the final version of the conimuniqué.

Paragraph 73 dealt with environmental decisionmaking and information. It endorsed a series of pet national projects, notably an international network for atmospheric and earth data exchange, the importance of the private sector, the OECD work on environmental indications, an international conference on environmental information, and voluntary product labelling. Paragraph 74 ended the environmental section by the endorsing the Human Frontier Science program much beloved by the Japanese.

Outside of the summit's Economic Declaration, in its main political declaration environmental values also received a major boost in the summit's consensus on how to deal with the divisive issue of resuming loans to, and other normal relations with, China, one vear after the Tienanmen massacre. Apart from giving the Japanese the green light to resume bilateral lending if they wished, the summit agreed that World Bank lending would be resumed only for projects which met basic human needs (an old criteria), or which enhanced the environment (a new standard). At a conceptual level, the summit leaders thus placed environmental protection on the same high level as basic human needs as a priority international value. The practical effect of this change, however, remained in some doubt, particularly as the World Bank President subsequently vowed that summit decisions would have no effect on the Bank's decisions, which remained the prerogative of its members.

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