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Sustainable Development at the Houston Seven Power Summit

John Kirton

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Houston as a Surprising Canadian Success

Apart from its substantial value in forwarding international agreement and action on sustainable development, the Houston communiqué represented, somewhat surprisingly, a significant success for the advancement of Canada's particular environmental concerns. At the outset of the summit preparatory process, Canada approached the environmental area, in which it had traditionally exercised summit leadership with the burden of a Prime Minister preoccupied with the process of domestic constitutional reform, without a national plan for the environment, and without his Environment Minister assured of the funding for major initiatives in the field.

Nonetheless, by May 1990 Canada had identified several inexpensive but not unimportant summit environmental objectives. These were: the move from a laundry list to a priorities approach; recognition for the centrality of climate change; the specification of processes and principles to move the debate on it forward; securing a summit consensus that followed Canada (at that time) in not setting timetables and targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions; adding language on the land-based marine pollution that was threatening Canada's long coastline; and obtaining a consensus on overfishing that would allow it to renew its campaign to curb the devastation European countries were visiting on the Atlantic, and in particular Newfoundland, fishery.

In its pre-summit package of materials prepared for the international media, Canada defined its basic summit position as promoting the "adoption of sustainable development approaches, as recommended by the World Commission on Environment and Development." It identified four key tenets: improved environmental information for decisionmakers (as in the Paris Summit's environmental indicators initiative); improved environmental education (internationally through UNEP); "enhanced international partnerships, multilateral or bilateral, with particular attention to the environmental relations between developed and developing countries;" and enhanced participation in international scientific efforts.

Canada's twenty major environmental positions, as identified in the pre-summit package, are worth noting in detail. They can be summarized as follows:

1. "concerted international action is required to address global environmental challenges"

2. "the international community must be prepared to take decisions and actions, even in the face of scientific uncertainty"

3. "long term solutions to global environmental problems will require the transfer of additional resources and technologies from developed to developing countries"

4. "Climate change is the most important environmental issue facing humanity today"

5. "a first step must be the stabilization, by the year 2000 and at present levels, of emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases."

6. "Canada is committed to producing a national strategy, including targets and schedules ... no later than the start of negotiations of a framework convention."

7. The Second World Climate Conference (Geneva, October 27-November 7, 1990) will provide a forum for discussing, at the ministerial level, targets, schedules and national action plans...(and) ... will set the stage for the launch of negotiations on a global climate change convention."

8. "The conclusion of a framework convention on climate change by the 1992 UN Conference ... along with supporting protocols outlining how the convention's principles are to be implemented, is a high priority."

9. "Canada supports phasing out by the year 2000 the use of chloroflurocarbons ... and other substances that deplete the ozone layer."

10. "Canada is actively participating in other global environmental initiatives.. the development of global conventions on biological diversity ... and oil spills, as well as regional agreements relating to air quality, environmental impact assessment, transboundary water problems, and of course acid rain."

11. "environmental considerations must be integrated into all aspects of domestic and international decisionmaking"

12. "Canada has been supportive of efforts to introduce environmental considerations into the project and program activities of multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Bank."

13. The work of the OECD on environmental indicators "will be presented at the January 1991 OECD Ministerial"

14. "Canada will also host an international conference in 1991 on the development and communication of environmental information, including that on environmental indicators ... so as to make a significant contribution to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development."

15 "...further work is needed to assess fully the merits of using economic instruments."

16. "Canada has two key concerns in the marine environment area: the negative effect of marine pollution (particularly in coastal areas) on fishing, tourism, biodiversity and human health; and the adverse impact of overfishing and indiscriminate fishing practices on living resources of the high seas."

17. "Canada strongly supports the efforts of the International Maritime Organization to build upon the achievements of the London Dumping Convention in order to improve controls on the disposal of wastes into the sea, and to conclude a Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response (scheduled for signing in November 1990)."

18. "Canada is a leading proponent of establishing, through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, more effective programs for monitoring the world's oceans"

19. "Canada supports enhanced international cooperation to protect and conserve living marine resources and to promote sustainable fisheries practices"

20. "Canada supports the strengthening of regional fisheries organizations, the principal proponents of the sustainable development of living marine resources."

Most of these preferences (with the notable exception of the fifth, specifying targets and timetables for greenhouse gas emission reduction) were successfully infused into the summit process and survived intact. Indeed, even when one takes into account the fact that these statement of preferences were written at a time when Canadian officials knew the contents of a draft summit communiqué, there is a remarkably high correspondence between these articulated Canadian positions and the content of the environmental sections of the final Houston declaration (summarized in the previous section above).

At the end of the summit, when Prime Minister Mulroney briefed the media on Canada's achievements at Houston, he singled out eight items of success. A full five of these dealt with the environment, meaning that this issue area was once again (following Paris) to bear the burden of proving that Canada was an equal power with something distinctive to contribute to and gain from its summit membership. The five environmental successes on the Prime Minister's list were: the acid rain negotiations agreement concluded with President Bush on the eve of the summit; the reference to land-based coastal pollution; the emphasis on fisheries conservation; the approval of the work on environmental indicators; and the endorsement of Canada's environmental information conference.

Nor did the Prime Minister lack confirmation of his summit environmental successes from other sources. Host President Bush in his post-summit news conference singled out Prime Minister Mulroney with the words: "I benefited from his commitment on the environment and from his advice." One of his top aides described to the media his interventions at the summit table with the words; "He tells them what overfishing is doing to the people of Newfoundland." And while the Canadian media noted that Bush's nice words might be an expression of gratitude for staging the earlier acid rain agreement, or political support for a friend in deep domestic political trouble, they widely reported the remark and tended to accept at face value Mulroney's environmental claims. Indeed, the Financial Post gave credence to the accolade when it provided the details (in a July 16 column by Hy Solomon) that Bush picked up Mulroney 's advice on global warming by accepting a summit endorsement for the 1992 framework negotiation on climate change being organized by the United Nations Environmental Program, as a way of overcoming the deep divisions around the summit table on the issue.

As with Canada's summit seven environmental diplomacy generally, this was an achievement of process rather than substance, an agreement on a deadline and a forum rather than on targets, programs and costs. But such accomplishments are both an appropriate specialty for a country of Canada's relative size around the summit table, and of considerable value in the complex world of international policy co-ordination on subjects as novel, open-ended, and fundamental as sustainable development.

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