12 Sustainable Development and International Relations Alan Grainger – Exploring Sustainable Development


Sustainable Development and
International Relations

Alan Grainger


Sustainable development was originally, like the dominant 20th-century ideal of development, a creation of international relations, being offered by the developed countries to the developing countries as a ‘guide to best practice’. But whereas developing countries can see working examples in developed countries of the ideal of development for which they are aiming, they cannot do this in the case of sustainable development. For if they did comply with the sustainable development ideal, as proposed in the World Conservation Strategy (IUCN, 1980), they would be avoiding the past development paths of the developed countries, with all the environmental degradation these caused, and not replicating them.

Development and sustainable development also differ in another important respect: there is no shared ideal of sustainable development. The developing countries have their own ideal, which is more in line with that of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987). This involves striving for a more equitable development path which improves their quality of life and narrows the gap between them and the developed countries. They might like to minimize the associated environmental damage if possible; but this is not their top priority. As explained in Chapter 1 of this volume, they still yearn for the development ideal which the developed countries promoted over 50 years ago, and which is still unrealized. If they have to use a different name for the same ideal, and meet additional conditions in order to continue to get support from developed countries, so be it. One aim of this chapter is to contrast these two different approaches, or discourses.

International relations must be central to the pursuit of sustainable development because some degree of international cooperation is needed to achieve its global goals, whether these be framed in terms of saving the planetary environment, or creating greater equity amongst its human inhabitants. However, some commentators, such as Rao (2000), go further. They appear to equate sustainable development with international action to protect the global environment, involving, for example, conventions to combat climate change and conserve biological diversity. But this is to confuse sustainable development as an optimum long-term development path with international strategies to tackle some of the key symptoms of unsustainable development. Others, including the present author, regard international collaboration as merely one of a set of strategies needed to achieve more sustainable development, which must address the totality of development at all levels on the spatial scale. So while this chapter examines international negotiations on how to mitigate global climate change and conserve biodiversity, these are only the means to an end, not the end itself. To create a sound international framework for more sustainable development by individual states it is vital to resolve the differences between the discourses of developed and developing countries on sustainable development, and that requires gaining a better understanding of these differences. That is another aim of this chapter.

Studying international negotiations also helps us to gain a better understanding of sustainable development as a theoretical concept, and how it might be applied in practice. As explained in Chapter 1, achieving sustainable development entails reaching an optimum balance between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. Exactly how this is done depends upon which of the various conditions for sustainable development is chosen as the optimal criterion. For example, complying with the ideal condition of ecological economics would require keeping the scale of human activity below the maximum carrying capacity of the planet. By contrast, to meet the Very Weak Condition of environmental economics the increase in Human and Man-Made Capital should be at least as great as the consequent fall in Natural Capital. So far, every state has charted a development path in which the balance between the three dimensions of development matches its particular needs, aspirations, culture and conditions. This national optimum, in turn, influences the position that a state adopts in international negotiations. So by observing the latter we should be able to learn how the state ranks the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development and whether they are integrated for planning purposes. This current optimum can then be compared with that required for sustainable development. Accordingly, this chapter is concerned less with examining the role of sustainable development in international relations, important though that is, than with seeing what we can learn about sustainable development by observing international relations.

The chapter has four main parts. The first provides a framework for the discussion by reviewing some key concepts and theories of international relations. Parts two and three use evidence from the negotiations before, during and after the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 to draw inferences about the relative priorities given by different groups of states to the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, and the extent to which they are willing to integrate them in practice. Part two focuses on the negotiations concerning the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), where the discourses of the developed and developing countries did not come into direct conflict. Part three looks at other negotiations concerning the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Statement of Forest Principles, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, where they did.

While the UNCED negotiations provide insights into how states rank the three dimensions of development, they only tell us a limited amount about how these dimensions are integrated. Because of how the negotiations were structured, states could, if they wished, treat them as merely ‘environmental negotiations’ and not bother to link measures to improve environmental management with the economic and social dimensions of development. However, during the 1990s some developed countries proposed that uniform social and environmental conditions be incorporated into the rules of three existing international institutions: the International Labour Organization (ILO), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor, the World Trade Organization (WTO). These were deliberate attempts to achieve more integration between the three dimensions of development, so the fourth part of the chapter compares the discourses of the member states of these institutions in order to assess their attitudes to such changes.

The ILO and WTO debates are also important in that proposals to introduce uniform social and environmental conditions into world trade epitomize a ‘globalist’ discourse of sustainable development, which regards all countries as equivalent. This has generated fierce opposition from developing countries because it would effectively extend globalization, hitherto seen as confined to economic matters, into the social and environmental arenas. However, such globalist initiatives are not the only possible way to counter the inequities associated with importing sustainable development (see Chapter 3). The chapter ends by advancing an alternative ‘gradualist’ approach, which is more in harmony with the discourse of developing countries.

The World as Viewed by International Relations Theories

The study of international relations is an important area of academic research and so we begin by outlining some of its most relevant theories and concepts.

Conflict or cooperation?

The academic field of international relations has been defined as ‘the study of all social phenomena not confined within a single state, such as the relations of states with one another, the operations of non-state actors, such as international organizations, multinational corporations and religious movements, and so on’ (Ogley, 1994). Theories that seek to explain relationships between these actors may be divided into three groups.

Rationalist theories

The first group consists of the rationalist theories that have traditionally dominated this field, and which regard states as the primary actors in international relations. In Neo-Realist Theory, states are isolated, politically autarkic entities preoccupied with their own security. In recent years our understanding of security has been extended from the purely military aspects embraced by the earlier Realist Theory to include political and economic security in the broadest sense (Dunne, 1997). International affairs are deemed to be characterized by conflict and anarchy, and stability and justice occur only in exceptional circumstances. When states negotiate with one another, each is concerned only with how much it can gain relative to its counterparts. Neo-Liberal Theory, on the other hand, argues that international institutions provide a framework for cooperation between states, which can reduce anarchy and conflict. Moreover, states are deemed to enter into negotiations in order to achieve absolute gains for all parties and not just to serve their own ends (Baldwin, 1993).

Reflexive theories

Another diverse group, called reflexive theories by Smith (1997), attempts to broaden the narrow scope of rationalist theory. Most reject the dominant role of the state. Consequently, they give more prominence than rationalist theories to the roles of non-state actors, such as firms and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One theoretical strand which is of particular relevance to the present topic is Post-Modernism, which rejects any single explanation of reality and studies how some particular ways of understanding the world, or discourses, come to achieve dominance (Walker, 1993). So while rationalist theories attempt to explain the tactics employed by states, a post-modern approach can give insights into their motivations.

Political economy theories

Political economy theories add an economic dimension to the study of international relations. As Gilpin (1987) notes: ‘For the state, territorial boundaries are a necessary basis of national autonomy and political unity. For the market, the elimination of all political and other obstacles to the operation of the price mechanism is imperative.’ In the modern global economy all states struggle to achieve development amid the rationalizing forces of the marketplace. Political economy theories use highly simplified models to explain the agglomeration of the diverse range of actors and territories under the influence of these forces. Some theories are akin to the rationalist perspectives outlined above. In Hegemonic Stability Theory, for example, which is Neo-Realist in outlook, an open world economy requires a single dominant (or hegemonic) power that is able to maintain long-term global security through the force of arms (Keohane, 1984). However, Strange (1998) has argued that this obsession with hegemony has caused neglect of other aspects of international power. Other theories, such as Dependency Theory (Frank, 1969) and Modern World System Theory (Wallerstein, 1974), referred to collectively as structuralist theories, divide the world into two zones. The first is a powerful Core, composed of the industrialized states, which exploits a weaker Periphery of less developed, or underdeveloped, countries.

While this chapter focuses primarily on examining the discourses of states in international relations, it does refer to the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other non-state actors. It draws, as appropriate, on the perspectives of the above theories, but is most influenced by the post-modernist approach. So while it makes use of rationalist theories to explain the tactics of states in international negotiations, and political economy theories to explain the power relations between states, it rejects the notion of sustainable development as a monolithic ideal that is accepted by all countries. Instead, following the general post-modernist approach, we find that different states can have radically different understandings of ‘sustainable development’. These, and not a utopian prescriptive approach, therefore constitute international reality and, by extension, national reality.

Institutions and regimes

When states decide to cooperate on a long-term basis they may establish a formal institution, which can be defined as ‘a set of agreed principles, norms, rules, common understandings, organizations and consultation processes’ (Greene, 1997). The members of each institution generally have a shared understanding of what they want to achieve, a structure of communication and a set of rules governing their behaviour (O’Riordan et al, 1998).

An agreement which establishes cooperation between states is called a regime, defined as ‘a social institution with . . . agreed principles, norms, rules, procedures and programmes that govern the activities and shape the expectations of actors in a specific issue area’ (Greene, 1997). There are two main kinds of regimes:

1.  Strong regimes, such as the 1983 Vienna Convention on the Ozone Layer, as elaborated by the 1987 Montreal Protocol, are binding agreements that commit all signatories to specific actions. Often the regime begins with an interim non-binding framework convention, but for convenience the whole set of agreements is assumed here to be a strong regime.

2.  Weak regimes, on the other hand, such as the 1977 UN Plan of Action to protect the Ozone Layer, are voluntary. They do not commit the signatories to any specific action, merely providing an international framework for discretionary national action.

Models of regime formation

In the Structural Model of regime formation, the main factor which determines the outcome of negotiations is the relative strength of states. One or more hegemonic states are assumed to put pressure on their weaker counterparts to join regimes (Keohane and Nye, 1977). In the Utilitarian Model, states behave as rational actors, but negotiating becomes harder as more states enter the negotiations and each party’s bargaining position is increasingly unclear to the others. However, even the efforts of a small group of states to reach agreement can be obstructed by the veto power of a single state (Hampson, 1989). Neither model, nor any of the others that have been proposed, offers a comprehensive explanation of regime formation, but each highlights some of the key factors involved.

Discourses and dialogues

Each party in a negotiation will have its own view or discourse. Discourse is a central plank of post-modernist theory and was defined by Scott (1988) as ‘a historically, socially and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories and beliefs’. Geopolitical discourses may be inferred from the documents, statements and practices of foreign and economic policies (Agnew and Corbridge, 1995). Of particular interest here are the boundaries between different discourses. It is assumed that these can be inferred from studying the set of statements, terms, categories and beliefs that constitute each discourse, and the points of conflict which arise during negotiations.

World diplomacy consists of a multiplicity of self-contained dialogues, in which actors engage in communication or negotiation. By agreement, practice or tradition, some statements, terms and categories are regarded as relevant to each dialogue, while others are not. Those which are employed derive from the discourses of all the actors involved, but the boundaries of dialogues generally reflect the relative powers of these actors.

Negotiating stances and outcomes

Every state enters into international negotiations with certain aims, desires and beliefs. Inferences about its general discourse are made in the following discussion by trying to identify three aspects of a state’s negotiating stance: (a) its dominant paradigm, which defines its general attitude to the subject under discussion; (b) its primary goal, which is what it most wants to gain from the negotiation, and to achieve which it may make concessions on other topics; and (c) its minimum acceptable compromise, which is its ‘bottom line’ and the ultimate limit on its freedom to negotiate.

Climate Change: The Predominance of an Isolated Globalist Discourse

All approaches to sustainable development agree that to achieve it requires a closer integration of the environment into development planning. However, so far economic growth and the interests of Capital have been given highest priority, and it took a long time for social needs to be accorded the recognition they deserve. The environment has habitually been treated separately from the economic and social dimensions of development and is ranked as less important than either. In practical planning situations it is generally regarded as more of a constraint on development than integral to it. So the economic and social goals of an initiative are evaluated first, and only then is a check made to see whether its environmental impacts exceed acceptable limits. This attitude has been perpetuated in negotiations on international environmental regimes, which are often seen as self-contained and restricted to ‘environmental matters’. But when dialogues, and the discourses of the actors involved in them, are dominated by environmental statements, terms, categories and beliefs, it can be difficult to reach agreement on strategies to achieve the changes in economic practice on which improved environmental performance depends.

To explore the implications of this argument, the next two parts of the chapter contrast discourses advanced by developed and developing countries in the negotiations leading up to, and following, the 12-day UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. This was attended by delegations from 176 states and representatives of some 1500 NGOs, and ended in an ‘Earth Summit’ of 103 world leaders. The discussion draws upon published recollections by individual delegates and reports in the printed media. It is, however, important to recognize that the latter tend to be biased towards reporting the actions of developed countries, and this may distort interpretations of the stances of different states (Dalby, 1996).

This part of the chapter examines negotiations on global climate change, while the next part examines other negotiations at UNCED. The aim is not to duplicate previous detailed descriptions of the negotiations (eg Bodansky, 1994; O’Riordan et al, 1998), but to develop a new analysis. This follows Borione and Ripert (1994) and Dasgupta (1994) in characterizing the negotiations as essentially triangular. The three principal groups of actors are the USA; other developed states (and fellow members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)), and the developing countries, which form the so-called Group of 77 (G77), though it actually has over 120 members.

Negotiations on the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) took place over a 17-month period before UNCED at five sessions of the International Negotiating Committee (INC) established by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 21 December 1990. The UNGA itself claimed direct oversight of the INC, rather than devolving responsibility to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) or the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), even though the latter had been preparing for the negotiations since 1989. This reflected the perception of the majority of UN members that global climate change was as much a development issue as an environmental concern and that the UNGA alone had the power to coordinate the involvement of all UN agencies with environment and development interests. This arrangement also meant that all UN member states, and not just UNEP or WMO members, could participate in the negotiations (Borione and Ripert, 1994).

The US position: postponing the day of reckoning

The US government was effectively able to control the composition of the dialogue and the formation of the FCCC by exercising its hegemonic power and veto role. The latter specifically reflects the fact that US carbon dioxide emissions account for one fifth of the global total. This reading of events is in accordance with the principles of Neo-Realist theory and both the Structural and Utilitarian models of regime formation. The US discourse was communicated forcibly and was allowed to achieve predominance because it did not have to accommodate other discourses.

FCCC negotiations began in February 1991, but little progress was made until the last session, divided between two meetings in New York in February and May 1992. States spent the first four sessions communicating and reiterating their positions, rather than negotiating to narrow their differences (Bodansky, 1994). This enabled the USA to maintain its discourse and avoid direct conflict with that of the developing countries until it had reached agreement with the other OECD countries. This occurred just before the start of the final meeting. According to Dasgupta (1994): ‘Both the EC and the USA preferred to continue postponing substantive negotiations with the South, deferring it until they succeeded in arriving at a common OECD position.’ For their part, neither the other developed countries nor the developing countries were keen to sign an agreement unless the USA was a party to it (Nitze, 1994). The compromise text essentially became the final text of the FCCC agreed at UNCED despite opposition by developing countries, which had played little effective part in the negotiations. It is highly ambiguous, committing states only to communicating information on policies and measures they take ‘with the aim of returning individually or jointly to their 1990 levels of their anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases’ (Dasgupta, 1994). The rest of this section looks at the US discourse on climate change and the reasons for it.

The US discourse is best described as ‘isolationist’, in that it was restricted to environmental statements, terms, categories and beliefs that were not integrated with economic and social considerations. Its dominant paradigm reflected a ‘globalist’ view of the world environment (Adams, 2001) and was sceptical about the threat imposed by the greenhouse effect. The globalist view is planetary in scale; it regards safeguarding the world environment as an ethical concern for all states, rather than a social or economic necessity; it requires all countries to be judged by the same standards; and it is external to, and divorced from, the development of national economies. The perspective stems from the ‘Spaceship Earth’ paradigm that dominated the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. This paradigm was advocated by a self-nominated elite dedicated to ‘saving the planet’ from disaster at the hands of the rest of humanity, regardless of the aspirations of developing countries. Indeed, the Stockholm conference was originally intended to discuss both environment and development, and improving the balance between the two was one of four main themes. Ultimately, however, this was overshadowed by discussions of the other themes: improving human settlements, slowing natural resource depletion and reducing pollution (Caldwell, 1990).

The sceptical attitude shown by the US Government, and its calls for more research to clarify the nature of the threat posed by climate change, reflected the uncertainty expressed in the full scientific assessment prepared before the start of negotiations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Houghton et al, 1990), as opposed to the summary document that was culled from it but phrased differently. But scepticism could just have been a convenient excuse for remaining within the bounds of a purely environmental discourse. The primary US goal throughout the climate negotiations was to delay action for as long as possible, in order to limit the negative impacts on its economy and optimize its present, as opposed to long-term, welfare. The USA seemed unwilling to make any precautionary trade-offs between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of its development. Its minimum acceptable compromise position in the negotiations was to ensure that the FCCC imposed no legally binding commitments on states to take remedial action (Nitze, 1994). This contrasted with the approaches of other OECD countries, which wanted the FCCC to commit all signatories to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The US government’s determination to minimize the costs to its economy of mitigating global climate change, thereby ranking the environment a poor third behind the other dimensions of development, reflected the balance of pressures on it from internal interest groups. The influence of US environmental NGOs is the strongest of any country, but it is still outweighed by that of interest groups representing Capital and Labour, whose ideological opposition to what they saw as the ‘anti-growth agenda’ of environmentalists enjoyed strong support amongst senior officials in the administration of President George Bush (Nitze, 1994). Major US-based transnational corporations such as Exxon – as it then was – were prominent members of the Global Climate Coalition, which pressed the governments of the USA and other developed countries to avoid precipitate action to curb global climate change, claiming that it would be economically damaging. As late as 1997 Lee Raymond, the Chief Executive of Exxon, was still arguing that:

It does not make sense to cripple the economy by making changes in the environment that may prove unnecessary, premature, or don’t stand the test of rigorous cost-benefit analysis (Pearce, 1997b).

Opposition was also voiced by the AFL-CIO, the main US trade union confederation, one of whose officials claimed that emissions reductions targeted only at rich states would ‘export jobs, capital and pollution’ (Pearce, 1997a).

The relative power of the two main political parties also had an important influence on US policy. The blatantly anti-environment attitude of the Republican Bush administration was only slightly moderated when the Democrat, Bill Clinton, assumed the presidency in January 1993. Clinton was more publicly supportive of action to curb global climate change. On 21 April 1993 he promised to return US greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2000 and that October launched a US Climate Action Plan to show how this would be done (Sebenius, 1994). His freedom of action was, however, constrained by opposition from the Republican-dominated US Senate, which must ratify all international treaties.

There was a general perception in the Senate that ‘external forces’ were eroding US sovereignty and welfare by effectively extending economic globalization to embrace environmental considerations. Trent Lott, the Republican majority leader, argued that the Kyoto Protocol could ‘empower international bureaucrats to impose financial obligations on the USA and failed to address the concerns of US business and labour organizations’ (Clark and Hutton, 1997). A member of the US delegation at UNCED put such concerns more starkly: ‘Environmental protection has replaced communism as the great threat to capitalism’ (Lascelles and Lamb, 1992b). Whether or not this is true is beside the point: in politics, perceptions matter most of all.

The dominant US paradigm and primary goal remained unchanged in later negotiations, held at regular Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the FCCC that culminated in an important benchmark statement, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. To delay any consequent impacts on the US economy, its negotiators initially tried to push back the date for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels from 2000 – cited as a ‘guideline’ in the FCCC – to 2012. They also argued that any further reductions could not be demanded before 2017 (Pearce, 1997b). Even the first of these proposals was conditional on general agreement to the USA’s minimum acceptable position, imposed by a US Senate resolution before the Kyoto meeting, that the protocol must include commitments to action by developing countries (Boulton, 1997a). This contradicted the earlier consensus, expressed in Article 3(1) of the FCCC, that the ‘Developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change’. The US condition is interesting because it is based not on the historical greenhouse gas emissions of developing countries, but on the expectation that their emissions will rise rapidly in future.

The USA also favoured the use of flexibility mechanisms. These include: (a) accounting for emissions of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, such as methane and nitrous oxide; and (b) allowing countries to meet their individual targets by supplementing domestic emission cuts with the purchase of excess pollution permits from other countries and by funding actions to cut emissions elsewhere (Pearce, 1997a; see also Chapter 11 in this volume). This would reduce the cost to US firms and avoid steep cuts in US emissions, particularly if, as the US government argued, ‘trading could account for up to 99 per cent of all action and still be considered supplemental’ (Pearce, 1998). If this view had prevailed then developed countries would have been able to avoid paying some of the environmental costs that they had accumulated over the previous two centuries.

Discourses of other developed countries

Of the other developed countries, only Australia adopted a similarly extreme discourse. In contrast, European countries were enthusiastic about taking action. Although Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, France and Germany called for cuts in emissions, and other states, including the UK, favoured less radical moves to achieve stabilization, all of the European Union (EU) countries shared a dominant paradigm that reflected the Precautionary Principle (Goldemberg, 1994). So they treated uncertainty as a reason to take precautions against a possible threat, rather than an excuse to avoid or postpone action. While they also ranked the environmental dimension lowest of all, they appreciated its interconnection with other dimensions of development and the potential for building on these links to achieve net benefits. European countries were much more open than the USA to arguments that improving technology to increase energy efficiency can yield economic savings as well as environmental benefits (Nitze, 1994). The EU countries were also keen to achieve ‘real’ cuts in emissions by limiting the use of flexibility mechanisms, such as emissions trading, so that at least half of each state’s target would be met by internal cuts in emissions. A third group of countries, including Canada, Japan and Russia, were more hesitant. They wanted to secure the best deal for themselves, taking maximum advantage of flexibility mechanisms in order to limit the impact on their economic competitiveness of implementing the protocol. But whereas the USA and Australia adopted a similar stance as a calculated preliminary to complete rejection of the protocol, the countries of the third group were willing to negotiate in earnest about its implementation.

Compromise and conflict

The negotiated compromise between these different positions led in November 1997 to the interim Kyoto Protocol, under which the EU, USA and Japan would cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 8 per cent, 7 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively, from 1990 levels by 2012. US negotiators succeeded in meeting many of their aims – for example, by ensuring that the protocol included all principal greenhouse gases and acknowledged the need for emissions trading. In spite of this, President Clinton reiterated that his country could not ratify the protocol unless it were modified to reflect the USA’s minimum acceptable compromise position of ‘meaningful participation by key developing countries’ (Clark and Hutton, 1997). Since this did not happen in subsequent meetings of the Parties to the Convention, this further delayed the beginning of US emissions cuts. Indeed, US emissions actually grew by 11 per cent between 1990 and 1997 (Boulton, 1997b). As another bargaining chip, the US government threatened to withhold its contribution to the Global Environment Facility, which funds projects intended to mitigate global change.

Negotiations on refining the Kyoto Protocol eventually broke down at the Sixth Conference of the Parties in The Hague in November 2000. This meeting, which was intended to finalize the Protocol, ended without agreement when both the USA and the EU stuck to their established positions. When talks resumed in Bonn in July 2001, the newly installed US President, George W Bush – son of the former President – announced the USA’s withdrawal from the entire negotiations. The remaining countries only reached a consensus when, ironically, the EU states backed down and allowed both unrestricted trading in carbon emission permits and limited offsets of emissions by carbon sinks. After some outstanding details were dealt with, the final version of the Kyoto Protocol was agreed at the Seventh Conference of the Parties, held in Marrakesh between 29 October and 10 November 2001.

By April 2004, the Protocol had been ratified by 121 states, together accounting for 44.2 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. For it to come into force, the cumulative share of emissions of participating states must exceed 55 per cent. Australia decided in 2002 not to ratify the Protocol, even though it was allowed to increase its emissions by 8 per cent. Its excuse was that without the participation of the USA and the developing countries the agreement would not be comprehensive and effective, so participation would undermine Australia’s economic competitiveness for no good reason (Kemp and Downer, 2002). Ratification by Russia would still be sufficient to exceed the 55 per cent threshold. At the start of December 2003 the Russian government stated that it would not ratify the Protocol ‘in its present form’, on the grounds that this would harm the national economy, but in May 2004 President Putin announced that ‘we will accelerate our movement towards ratifying this protocol’ (Paton Walsh, 2004). This closely followed the EU’s decision not to oppose Russia’s application to join the World Trade Organisation!

The US government, meanwhile, announced its own climate change strategy in February 2002. Staying true to its discourse, this involved a voluntary scheme that aimed to cut greenhouse gas intensity – the rate of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) – by 18 per cent over the next ten years (Dunne, 2002). However, this is likely to result in a substantial increase in emissions. Since greenhouse gas intensity had already fallen by a mean of 18 per cent per decade in the 1980s and 1990s, the new strategy effectively corresponded to a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario.

Stretching the boundaries: the view from the South

The discourses of developing countries in the climate change negotiations contrasted sharply with that of the USA. They did not take a uniform view, but scepticism about global climate change was not part of their dominant paradigm. Indeed, by April 2004 79 developing countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The only group which consistently questioned the reality of the threat were members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), who regarded the FCCC as biased against their principal natural resource (Corzine, 1997).

The Group of 77 developing countries encompasses various networks of states, each with their own set of common interests, so its cohesiveness fluctuated during the negotiations (Djoghlaf, 1994). Most in favour of urgent action were the Alliance of Small Island States, which perceive themselves to be under direct and immediate threat from rising sea levels, and states in sub-Saharan Africa concerned about the increasing frequency of drought. In contrast, the Kuala Lumpur Group of 42 forested countries regarded the FCCC as an attempt by developed countries to restrict their national sovereignty over forest management (Borione and Ripert, 1994). China, although not a formal member of the G77, attended their meetings and often backed their position in negotiations.

The dominant paradigm of developing countries clearly linked the economic and environmental dimensions of development, but only with respect to the developed world. It stressed that the latter should bear most of the burden of curbing and mitigating global climate change because over the past two centuries it has been responsible for emitting a large proportion – perhaps two-thirds in the case of carbon dioxide – of the greenhouse gases that have caused the problem. Even today, per capita emissions of greenhouse gases in developed countries vastly exceed those in developing countries, and this gives rise to an important equity issue (Dasgupta, 1994; see also Chapter 11 in this volume).

The developing countries stated their paradigm in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration issued in April 1992, prior to UNCED. To paraphrase the words of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, the developed countries have caused most of the pollution and destroyed their own environmental heritage, so they should clean up their own mess instead of laying claim to the resources of the developing world (Mallet, 1992). Developing countries succeeded in getting their paradigm recognized in Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration, agreed by all countries at UNCED:

The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.

Seen from another perspective, historical emissions of greenhouse gases have also led to the accumulation of environmental costs that the whole world is now being forced to pay. A disproportionate share of this burden will have to be borne by the poorest countries, which are least responsible for causing the problem and least able to pay to mitigate it (see Chapter 11). Andrew Simms, an official of Christian Aid (Simms, 1999b), has even equated the huge environmental debt accumulated by centuries of economic growth in the developed countries with the financial debt crisis of developing countries:

New ways of accounting for the huge environmental debt that industrialized countries owe for global warming, far outweighing those owed by poor countries, are also turning the balance of power between rich and poor upside down . . . Poor countries could now justifiably demand repayments for eco-debt, greater redistribution, more technology transfer, and a fair system to minimize damage from global warming before even considering agreeing to a global deal.

However justified this argument may be in principle, in practice the developed countries can withstand such claims by virtue of their greater political power. The USA, in particular, has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that it has any such historical responsibilities, stating only that the participation of states in the climate change regime should be based on current conditions, or, more specifically, ‘in accordance with the means at their disposal and their capabilities’ (Dasgupta, 1994).

The primary goal of the G77 states when negotiating the FCCC, consistent with their dominant paradigm, was to gain firm commitments for action by developed countries. When these were not forthcoming they called the FCCC ‘fundamentally flawed’ (Pearce, 1992a). Their minimum acceptable compromise position had five main components, reflecting a discourse that saw the environment as just one part of the broader development picture:

1.  Common but differentiated responsibility: developed countries should bear the main cost of action, in line with their historical responsibility for causing the problem, and there should be special conditions to allow developing countries to participate. This actually led to a new interpretation of sustainable development in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, in the shape of an argument that the onus should be on developed countries to adjust their current patterns of consumption and production to ensure more environmentally sound development (Vatikiotis, 1992).

2.  Additionality: developed states should transfer ‘new and additional’ funds to developing countries to pay for any actions that they took to combat climate change, and not simply reallocate existing aid budgets.

3.  No further loss of sovereignty that would perpetuate their exploitation by developed countries. Mahathir Mohamad has claimed that the environmental policies promoted by developed countries are extending imperialism and the dependency relationships that led to the export of so much of the past economic surplus generated in the developing world (Vatikiotis, 1992). This also explains the developing countries’ opposition to notions of ‘conditionality’, under which any new funding received from developed states could only be used for environmental protection. They also wanted this money to come from a special fund, rather than the Global Environmental Facility, which they saw as being controlled by the World Bank and hence by the USA (Nitze, 1994).

4.  The right to continue their social and economic development, asserted in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration (Corzine, 1997). From this perspective, it was totally hypocritical of the developed countries to ask their poorer counterparts to curb their development to mitigate an environmental problem caused by the past unsustainable development of the global North.

5.  The right to prioritize action to tackle their own immediate environmental problems – such as poor air and water quality – before long-term problems like global warming. As Anwar Saifullah, Pakistan’s Environment Minister at the time of UNCED, noted: ‘80 per cent of our water is untreated. That’s our biggest problem. When I have to worry about the basic provisions of life, it’s a luxury to talk of the [global] environment’ (Lascelles and Lamb, 1992b).

So developing country discourses share the developed countries’ short-term view. When they do take a long-term perspective it is concerned with the past, not the future. They also rank the economic and social dimensions of development far above the environment. Except for countries that are under the most imminent threat from climate change, they also give priority to local environmental problems that have a direct impact on the welfare of their people.

The key positions of the G77 were incorporated into Section 3 of the FCCC, which covers Principles. Yet inevitably compromises had to be made with the positions of developed countries, and this left much ambiguity (Minzer and Leonard, 1994). Thus, Article 3(4) of the FCCC, which states that ‘Parties have a right to, and should, promote sustainable development’, can be read as acknowledging both the right of developing countries to develop and the view of the developed countries that development should be curbed to minimize environmental impacts. Article 3(5), which states that ‘Parties should cooperate to promote . . . sustainable economic growth and development in all Parties, particularly developing country Parties’, is also ambiguous because it does not clarify how economic growth can be made sustainable. Section 4, on Commitments, recognizes the developing countries’ position by requiring developed states to provide new and additional funds to cover the full costs incurred by developing countries in reporting information to the Conference of the Parties. But it also satisfies developed countries by requiring that these funds need only cover the incremental costs of implementing measures to combat global climate change. Despite these concessions to developed countries, however, it does make action by developing countries contingent upon the former fulfilling their own commitments.

Lessons from the climate change negotiations

States were the principal actors in the climate change negotiations, responding mainly to pressures from the interests of domestic Capital and Labour, with NGOs playing only a minor role. The contrast between the US and Group of 77 discourses was stark:

The USA ranked the environment far below the economic and social dimensions of its development. It showed no interest in integrating the environment into economic planning. Instead, it adopted a globalist and isolationist approach which regarded conserving the global environment as of great importance, but did not link this in any way to the operation of its domestic economy, either past or present. Indeed, its stance required that any response it made to global climate change should not harm its economic interests. Most other developed countries took less extreme positions, even noting the synergies between the economic and environmental dimensions of development, which the USA ignored.

The G77 states also gave top priority to their own economic and social advancement, but from a more justifiable position that identified climate change as the historical responsibility of developed countries. In this they took a long-term view and firmly integrated the economic and environmental dimensions of development, but only in respect of the developed world. They also linked the social and environmental dimensions, in giving top priority to solving local environmental problems that most directly affected the health of their people.

The USA was able to confine and stall these negotiations by virtue of its hegemonic power. When negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, it had the audacity to breach the UNCED consensus on differentiated obligations, stating that it would not reduce its greenhouse gas emissions unless developing countries followed suit. This deliberate ploy to stall the negotiations was only defeated when much of the rest of the world decided to proceed without the USA.

Discourses in Conflict at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

While the discourses of the USA and the developing countries did not come into direct conflict in the climate change negotiations, they did clash more overtly in other UNCED negotiations on biodiversity, forests, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, and it is to these that we now turn.

The Convention on Biological Diversity: the predominance of an integrated discourse

When the US government entered into negotiations regarding the other convention agreed at UNCED, concerning biodiversity, the boundaries of its discourse were apparently determined by the belief, already evident with respect to climate change, that it was engaging in a tightly bounded environmental dialogue. Its chief negotiator, William Reilly, stated that he thought that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) would be merely concerned with ‘protecting flora and fauna’ (Lascelles and Lamb, 1992a). This explains why the US discourse was entirely environmental in content, with a dominant paradigm consistent with a ‘globalist’ view of the environment.

But the USA received a rude awakening from developing countries. Based on an acute sense of their previous economic exploitation, portrayed in the structuralist theories outlined above, their discourse was cast not just in environmental terms, but also engaged with social and economic perspectives. In this context, when the current exploitation of their natural resources was at stake, developing countries did not see the environment in isolation. Their dominant paradigm was that any action they took to conserve their environment must be consistent with preserving their economic sovereignty and the right to develop as they wanted. These were two of their primary goals in the climate change negotiations. With respect to biodiversity, their primary goal and minimum acceptable compromise position were identical: to establish the right to charge for access by other countries to their natural resources. They achieved this by gaining agreement to insert clauses into the convention which ensured that if their natural resources were exploited for biotechnology they could patent the genetic material contained in these resources, charge royalties for its use and claim preferential access to any resulting products. Marcos Azambuja, Brazil’s chief negotiator, described the issue in this way: ‘If the bark of a tree in Piaui state is found to have certain valuable properties, is that a Brazilian asset? Do we allow others to share it and can we charge royalties if someone synthesizes it?’ (Lascelles and Lamb, 1992a).

The introduction of economic terms into the CBD made it incompatible with the US government’s discourse. It also contradicted its minimum acceptable compromise position that the regime should not stray beyond the boundaries of a purely environmental dialogue, or have any negative impacts on the US economy. Consequently, the US government declined to sign the convention, alleging that it would: (a) undermine patents and licences over products and processes; (b) weaken its negotiating position on intellectual property rights in the Uruguay Round of GATT trade talks then in progress; (c) disadvantage US firms by imposing safety rules for the export of genetically engineered products; and (d) prevent the US government from influencing the destination of funds which it gave to implement the convention.

As with climate change, the US position reflected the dominant influence of its industry lobby. President Bush stated that: ‘I will not sign a treaty that in my view throws too many Americans out of work.’ Dick Godwin, President of the Industrial Biotechnology Association, was still more emphatic: ‘It seems to us highway robbery that a Third World country should have the right to a protected invention on concessionary terms simply because it supplied a bug, or a plant or an animal in the first place’ (Coghlan, 1992).

Crucially, however, in the case of biodiversity, the US government had less scope than with climate change to influence the content of the Convention by using its hegemonic power to impose its discourse on the dialogue. Nor did it have the potential to impose a veto. Instead, this power now lay with developing states, such as Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia, whose territories contained a major share of global biodiversity. In the end, they were not obliged to use this veto. The developing country discourse was allowed to dominate the dialogue, and the economic connection between biodiversity and biotechnology was formally recognized.

Although President Clinton later signed the Convention, the contradiction between the discourses of the developed and developing countries remained. Consequently, little progress has since been made towards reaching agreement on protocols needed to implement the convention. The sole exception has been the Bio-Safety Protocol, agreed in 2000, which aims to ensure the safe use of genetically modified organisms. Not surprisingly, this chiefly serves the commercial interest of developed countries.

The defeat of globalism: the Forest Convention negotiations

Developing countries fought hard before UNCED to prevent agreement on a Forest Convention, which was publicly stated to be the USA’s primary goal in Rio (Pearce, 1992b). This was to be expected, given its restricted globalist environmental discourse. US environmental groups, like their counterparts in Europe, had been pressing for a Forest Convention for some time. Given the high quality of forest management in the USA, implementing it would not incur high domestic social and economic costs or exceed the bounds of the US discourse. ‘If one had been agreed’, said Fred Pearce (1992b), ‘these governments could have claimed they were tackling the number one concern of environmentalists at home.’ However, the globalist environment discourse adopted by many NGOs from developed countries failed to address the everyday social and economic problems of developing countries (Rahman and Roncerel, 1994).

Developing countries strongly opposed a Forest Convention because they thought it would undermine their sovereign right to choose how they balanced the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. As Mahathir Mohamad observed: ‘A convention would only be fair if we could also tell the North that they could not have this or that factory’ (New Scientist, 1992a). Another cause for concern was the cost of upgrading the quality of forest management. The Kuala Lumpur group of forested countries also thought that developed countries were using the convention as ‘an attempt to spread the blame for the greenhouse problem’ because of the carbon dioxide emitted by tropical deforestation (Goldemberg, 1994).

If a Forest Convention had been agreed at UNCED it would have been an important step towards extending globalization into the environmental arena by imposing uniform, instead of differentiated, global standards. However, owing to the strength of opposition only a bland, voluntary Statement of Forest Principles was approved. The wording of the final text sheds interesting light on the discourses of the various parties involved in these negotiations:

The G77 removed all references to a future Forest Convention from the preamble, which refers only to ‘appropriate internationally agreed arrangements to promote international cooperation’.

Sensitivity over sovereignty aroused resistance to attempts to refer to the ‘global’ importance of forests, and the pre-eminence of national policies, so that the final version spoke of forests being ‘essential to the economy as a whole’. According to Kamal Nath, then Indian environment minister: ‘We do not talk about the globalization of oil. Yet oil has a greater impact than forests on the global environment’ (New Scientist, 1992a). The G77 also ensured that the statement referred to unilateral boycotts on ‘unsustainable’ forest products as unlawful (Lamb, 1992).

Developing countries wanted to include a phrase affirming the ‘right to develop’: one of their general minimum acceptable compromise positions. But US insistence on an environmental qualification resulted in a final version that spoke of the ‘right to socio-economic development on a sustainable basis’ (Pearce, 1992b). The USA was evidently willing to impose environmental constraints on development in developing countries, but not on its own development.

The G77 was a very influential negotiating group at UNCED, with India, Malaysia and Pakistan being among its most vociferous members. Its leaders knew that developed countries required their cooperation to realize the aim of a better global environment and so attempted to use this advantage to gain concessions on trade and aid. ‘Fear by the North of environmental degradation’, argued Mahathir Mohamad (New Scientist, 1992a), ‘provides the South with the leverage that did not exist before.’ However, developed countries did not promise more aid and freer trade as incentives to secure environmental agreements. They did offer a Convention on Desertification, a priority for African states, if the latter would support the Forest Convention. But the G77 proved sufficiently powerful to gain agreement on a Convention on Desertification – negotiated after UNCED – without any of its members having to sacrifice their principles by agreeing to a Forest Convention.

Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration: the phraseology of compromise

Similar clashes occurred over two other UNCED documents, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21; but these were not abandoned. Instead, they were simply rephrased to prevent their rejection by key parties.

Thus, the third of the 27 principles of the Rio Declaration (see Table 12.1) (UN, 1993) states that ‘The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations’. This repeats the compromise phrase used in the Statement of Forest Principles that had proved acceptable to both developing countries and the USA. The second principle defends the notion of sovereignty by asserting that ‘countries have the right to exploit their own natural resources’, a position vital for the developing countries. But it also notes that countries ‘have an equal obligation to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environments of other states’, which reflects the USA’s globalist discourse. Similar qualifications of the basic discourse of developing countries can also be found in Principles 4, 5 and 7. The discourse emerges intact in Principle 11, which implicitly opposes the imposition of uniform environmental standards. The developed countries’ discourse of an open world economy is prominent in Principle 12, though this also conforms to the developing countries’ discourse in advising against trade barriers. Even though the USA agreed to the Rio Declaration, it still insisted on issuing a press release to explain how it interpreted key phrases – for example, stressing that ‘Development is not a right. It is a goal we all hold’ (Pearce 1992b).


Table 12.1   Summary of the Rio Declaration

  1 Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.


States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.


The right to development must be fulfilled in order to equitably meet the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.


In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.


All states and all peoples shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development in order to decrease the disparities in standards of living and better meet the needs of the majority of the people of the world.


The special situation and needs of developing countries, particularly the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable, shall be given special priority. International actions in the field of environment and development should also address the interests and needs of all countries.


States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, states have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.


To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, states should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.


States should cooperate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies.


Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.


States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives and priorities should reflect the environmental and developmental context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, particularly developing countries.


States should cooperate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation. Trade policy measures for all purposes should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade. Unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country should be avoided. Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.


States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction.


States should effectively cooperate to discourage or prevent the relocation and transfer to other states of any activities and substances that cause severe environmental degradation or are found to be harmful to human health.


In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.


National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.


Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact upon the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.


States shall immediately notify other states of any natural disasters or other emergences that are likely to produce sudden harmful effects on the environment of those states. Every effort shall be made by the international community to help states so afflicted.


States shall provide prior and timely notification and relevant information to potentially affected states on activities that may have a significant adverse transboundary environmental effect and shall consult with those states at an early stage and in good faith.


Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.


The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all.


Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.


The environment and natural resources of people under oppression, domination and occupation shall be protected.


Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.


Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible.


States shall resolve all of their environmental disputes peacefully and by appropriate means in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

27 States and people shall cooperate in good faith and in a spirit of partnership in the fulfilment of the principles embodied in this Declaration and in the further development of international law in the field of sustainable development.

Source: UN (1993)

Agenda 21, which extends to over 400 pages and 40 chapters, is often treated deferentially as a comprehensive programme of action for sustainable development. However, it is more a political document than a technical manual (UN, 1993). When it was formulated some issues were excluded at the insistence of lobby groups and national delegations, while in other instances the language was blurred to avoid offence. For example, OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, opposed any mention of fuel efficiency, alternative sources of energy and curbs on car use in the chapter on the atmosphere (New Scientist, 1992b). The Vatican opposed any reference to the control of population, and industry lobby groups ensured that transnational corporations were only mentioned in a favourable light. The final document was condemned in a Times leader on 15 June 1992 as:

A ragbag which conflates the marginally desirable with the vital, a document so heavily politicized that it barely nods to the obstacle rapid population growth presents to protecting the environment in some of the poorest countries (The Times, 1992).

Even the Secretary General of UNCED, Maurice Strong, stressed the absence of key topics in both Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration by deliberately mentioning them in his opening speech to the conference. As he recognized, diplomatic compromise may maintain friendly relations between states, but rarely leads to feasible policies.

In spite of the two conventions which emerged from UNCED, overall it must be regarded as a failure. This is because it could not reconcile the conflicting discourses of the parties involved, merely finding a form of words to recognize both simultaneously. It was not just that different states had different goals. In many cases, they seemed incapable of understanding views different from their own.

Assessing the balance between competing discourses

These negotiations show that there is still some truth in the principles of rationalist theories. States were the principal actors and both the USA and developing countries tried to limit their relative economic losses when formulating the Biodiversity and Climate Conventions, in line with Neo-Realist theory. The discourses of developing countries were also heavily influenced by the desire to prevent the extension of the exploitative relations portrayed in structuralist theories. On the other hand, the governments of developed countries rarely behaved as unitary actors. They often negotiated at two levels at the same time: both externally, with other governments, and internally, with groups whose support they required in order to stay in power.

The US government intended to satisfy its powerful business and labour lobbies with the Climate Change Convention (FCCC), and the environmental lobby with the Biodiversity Convention (CBD) and Forest Convention. Unfortunately, the Biodiversity Convention was not restricted to flora and fauna, as it had expected, and the Forest Convention was blocked by developing countries which feared that it would infringe their sovereignty.

Overall, however, the USA played a clever game. By insisting that it would not participate in the Kyoto Protocol unless developing countries followed suit, it gambled that this would ensure that it would never have to ratify the Protocol. At the same time, it was able to dominate formation of the regime because its discourse did not come into direct conflict with that of the developing countries. But by deliberately trying to draw the latter into the dialogue in this way, it risked initiating this conflict. When this happened in other dialogues the more comprehensive developing country discourse proved to be surprisingly resilient. So there is a strong chance that this might have happened with climate change too, and then the USA could not have maintained the restricted boundaries of its environmental discourse. Ultimately, the USA chose to withdraw from the entire dialogue because its discourse was incompatible with those of virtually all of the other parties, both developed and developing. The Republican administration of George W Bush was not afraid to take an isolationist position in the world community. Indeed, it blocked attempts to include any targets for increasing renewable energy use at the expense of fossil fuels in the Plan of Implementation drawn up at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in 2002, and even insisted on excluding climate change from the list of high-priority environmental issues included in the associated Johannesburg Declaration.

Sustainable development: optimum development path or unresolved compromise?

Sustainable development is mentioned not only in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, but also in the Climate Change and Biodiversity Conventions. Yet the analysis in this chapter raises doubts about the use of the term in UNCED documents. Did it refer to an optimum development path that was an intentional balance between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development? Or was it was simply an unresolved compromise between two different discourses: that of the developing countries, which regarded development as a right, and that of the developed countries, which regarded ‘sustainable development’ as a codeword for development subject to certain constraints to protect the environment?

Hyder (1994), a prominent representative of the G77, was in no doubt that:

The entire UNCED process can be seen as a struggle between the developing and developed countries to define sustainable development in a way that fits their own agendas. The developed countries put the environment first. By contrast the developing countries put development first.

He believed that the developed countries rejected the link between environment and development because they were afraid that the developing countries would try to use it as a lever to gain more financial resources from them. Their globalist view of the environment suggests that they either could not conceive of integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, or they regarded it as politically impossible.

Hyder also pointed to another difference between the two discourses. While the developed countries tried to distinguish between global and local problems, developing countries saw them as linked, and even tried to put them on an equal footing to emphasize the relationship between environment and poverty.

The preamble of UN General Assembly Resolution 44/228, passed on 22 December 1989, which launched the whole UNCED process, stated that ‘Environmental protection in developing countries must . . . be viewed as an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it’. This clearly identifies the necessity of integrating the environment with the other dimensions of development so that trade-offs can be made between them. Yet from Hyder’s (1994) perspective, and that of the developing countries generally, it seemed that:

As the global environmental negotiations unfolded . . . it became obvious that the developed countries, having acquiesced to Resolution 44/228, no longer felt bound by its language or its intent. In every negotiating forum they sought to give primacy to environmental protection at the cost of the universal right to development.

If this is correct – and, of course, developed countries might argue that developing states were equally focused on development as their main priority – then it means that ‘sustainable development’ was not used in the UNCED documents to refer to an optimum development path. It was simply a device to reconcile the aspiration of developing countries to develop and the developed world’s desire to curb this development in order to protect the global environment. So the internal contradiction within the Brundtland Report (see Chapter 1) was left unresolved by UNCED.

Since UNCED many have looked to Agenda 21 as though it offered a master plan for sustainable development. O’Riordan et al (1998) went even further, stating that: ‘Although not legally binding on national governments, the intense negotiations surrounding many sections accentuate Agenda 21’s possible influence as a soft law instrument.’ It might be wiser, however, to be more cautious about its potential contribution because in order to ensure a final consensus text, at least as many compromises had to be made as for the Brundtland Report.

A cynic might argue that the unresolved ambiguity in the Brundtland Report, and even the conflicts at UNCED over the meaning of ‘sustainable development’, were of no consequence. This is because sustainable development has only ever been, in the minds of states, a codeword for bargaining. The developed countries want a better global environment, while the developing countries want more development, and the groups of states will trade off one against the other in the course of extended negotiations. This means that sustainable development at global level remains a compromise, but a different and less attractive one from that which most idealists would like.

Modifying Existing International Institutions

While states may be able to remain within the strict boundaries of their environmental discourses in dialogues confined to environmental topics, it is more difficult to do this when attempts are made to incorporate an environmental dimension into dialogues that are predominantly concerned with economic or social topics. In order to gain additional insights into the attitudes of states regarding integration of the three dimensions of development, this final part of the chapter examines the debates that ensued when proposals were made to modify three international institutions – the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its forerunner, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – to take account of human rights and environmental concerns.

Trade and development

Developing countries have struggled for decades to win better access for their exports to markets in the developed countries, hoping that this will enable them to generate more capital and thus accelerate their development. But such efforts have often been frustrated by trade barriers erected by developed countries, which, by default, give preference to imports of raw materials – characterized by low and fluctuating prices – over manufactured goods. Thus, of the 28 poorest countries in the world, 26 depend upon primary commodities for over 70 per cent of their export revenues (Barbier, 1994). This dependency, which has increased in the post-colonial era, makes it difficult for Southern states to implement long-term development strategies, inhibits their industrialization and development, and restricts their ability to secure more sustainable development. Indeed, when developing countries export raw materials for processing elsewhere, they are effectively exporting their development (see Chapter 3) since the value added to these natural resources by processing accrues to the importing countries, instead of being used to fund their own development.

During the 20th century, states formed a series of international institutions to advance their mutual interests. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), established in 1948 following the Bretton Woods Conference, succeeded in reducing trade barriers between developed countries; but developing countries always felt that it neglected their needs. Even after 1964, which saw the start of regular meetings of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to consider the issue, barriers between developed and developing countries declined more slowly. Developing countries still feel like second-class members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which superseded GATT in 1995. This perception was confirmed by their exclusion from key discussions at the start of the abortive round of WTO talks in Seattle in November 1999. They expressed their irritation in a declaration issued after an UNCTAD meeting in Bangkok in February 2000, which reminded developed countries of the need to take account of ‘the development dimension’ in trade (Barnes, 2000). Continuing restrictions on the exports of developing countries sit uncomfortably with pressures from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to remove their own barriers to imports from developed countries so that they can allegedly reap the full benefits of liberalization.

In the 1990s, the prospect of another type of trade barrier emerged. While the boundaries of trade dialogues between developed and developing countries have long been biased against the latter, at least they were limited to trade. So when some developed countries suggested extending the boundaries to include labour and environmental standards, developing countries reacted strongly, believing this would further restrict their access to overseas markets. The proposals were a response to pressures from NGOs and other interest groups, which believed that when developed countries import resources and products from the developing world they are, effectively, importing development – in the form of low social welfare – and sustainable development – in the form of low environmental quality. Prices are lower than those for equivalent goods in developed countries because suppliers do not have to pay the costs of complying with the tougher social and environmental laws that prevail in the latter (see Chapter 3). At first glance, expanding international trade regulations to ensure a level playing field should reduce such inequities. But what if this severely constrains development, and appears to developing countries as a deliberate attempt by the developed countries to do this? Little has changed since Redclift (1987) stated that ‘The problem in achieving sustainable development [is] related to the over-riding structures of the international economic system’.

Proposals to include labour standards in world trade rules

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is one of the oldest UN specialized agencies, originally founded in 1919 as part of the League of Nations. It has traditionally set voluntary standards for working conditions and helped countries to move closer to them, but it differs from GATT and WTO in that developing countries are strongly represented within it. When President Chirac of France proposed linking labour standards to trade at the ILO’s annual meeting in 1995, his discourse was very much at odds with the traditional boundaries of ILO dialogue. He claimed that trade liberalization, the development of employment and respect for fundamental labour rights were ‘inseparable’. As a result, he noted, ‘We must seek a way to link respect for the social dimension . . . and the liberalization of international trade’ (Williams, 1995).

The idea that the production of all goods traded in international markets should conform to minimum uniform social standards, effectively corresponding to those currently accepted by developed countries, was a response to pressures on some ILO member states from two main sources. First, from trade unions and businesses, which feared ‘unfair’ competition from goods produced under poor working conditions, including forced and child labour. Second, from consumers’ groups and other NGOs, which had moral objections to what they saw as labour exploitation. So, while states may have tabled the formal proposal at the ILO, the initiative originated with non-state actors, something which the traditional rationalist theories of international relations do not encompass.

In the discourse of those developed countries which supported this proposal it would have helped to enhance the social welfare dimension of development in developing countries, although it would not necessarily have redistributed income and wealth. Yet while it might appear that the developed countries were integrating the economic and social dimensions of development, they were only doing so in relation to their developing counterparts, and were motivated largely by a desire to protect their own economic interests.

If this proposal had been accepted it would have led to a major change in the ILO’s rules. Common sets of rules help the ILO and other international institutions to minimize conflicts between members but this proposal aimed to turn a set of voluntary standards into binding rules for an entirely different purpose. In doing so it would have effectively expanded globalization into the social arena.

The proposal put the ILO in a dilemma. Accepting it might antagonize its developing country members by infringing their sovereignty while rejection might lead to some developed countries erecting their own trade barriers, thereby increasing disorder in the world trading system and labour markets. Its dilemma increased when, in 1996, the WTO refused a request by the US government to link labour standards to trade, suggesting that this fell under the ILO’s jurisdiction.

Consequently, in 1997, the ILO secretariat drafted a Declaration of Core Labour Standards and asked member states to give the ILO a ‘specific mandate’ to ensure ‘the protection and promotion on a universal basis of the fundamental rights of workers’. These rights would include freedom of association and collective bargaining, suppression of all forms of forced or compulsory labour, abolition of child labour, and equality of opportunity. A new global system of social labelling was proposed to guarantee that internationally traded goods were produced under humane working conditions. ILO staff would make regular inspections in member states to ensure compliance (Taylor, 1997a).

That year’s ILO conference supported a Declaration of Universal Labour Standards, regarding it as entirely consistent with the ILO’s traditional dialogue and voluntary approach. However, the G77 countries opposed going further, by linking these standards to trade, effectively in the form of a strong regime, since extending the boundaries of the ILO dialogue in this way threatened their national sovereignty. Their discourse on this linkage is well expressed in the following paraphrase of a statement by the Colombian government:

‘It introduces an untenable link between labour standards and trade which we do not accept. The ILO has no role with regard to the multilateral trading system nor is it mandated to promote or impede globalization’. Developing countries should only have to conform to those internationally recognized labour standards which are ‘voluntarily ratified’ by states. The ILO should regard labour standards as ‘benchmarks in the process of development’ and assist in gradually attaining them by setting standards, promoting technical cooperation, and analysing labour trends, having regard to the stage of social and economic development in each country. An annual ILO report on social progress in each country is ‘unacceptable’. ‘The implication is the ILO would determine what is the “acceptable” level of comparative advantage and which countries are converting the benefits of liberalization into social progress’. A voluntary system of ‘social labelling’ is also unacceptable. ‘There is no empirical evidence to support the view that there is a link between trade liberalization and labour standards’ (Taylor, 1997b).

The developing country discourse was therefore dominated, as expected, by an insistence on sovereignty, and the limitation of international standards to ‘benchmarks’ that states can use at their discretion to assess their progress in economic development. There was no apparent desire to integrate closely the economic and social dimensions of development in the way that the developed countries wanted. The conference therefore gave the ILO secretariat a mandate to continue working on the declaration and monitoring mechanisms, but left undecided how any social conditions might be added to world trade rules in the future.

Proposals to include environmental conditions in world trade rules

Proposals and pressures

Proposals have also been made to add environmental conditions to world trade rules in order to prevent countries from exporting goods whose production incurs unacceptably high environmental impacts. The context is somewhat different from that discussed above, as GATT, and subsequently the WTO, have an established role in setting mandatory trade rules, as distinct from advisory standards. It would just be necessary to modify these to incorporate environmental provisions, though again it would breach the boundaries of the existing dialogue. Although developing countries lack power in the WTO, its existing rules are consistent with key terms in their discourse, not least the emphasis on national sovereignty.

As discussed in Chapter 3, lower environmental standards in developing states allow them to ‘export sustainable development’ in the goods they supply to developed countries. Importers obtain such goods relatively cheaply because they do not have to pay the environmental costs imposed in their own countries. Daly and Goodland (1994) defended the imposition of environmental conditions on trade from an ecological economics perspective, arguing that free trade converts local carrying capacity constraints into global constraints. So a problem that would, in their eyes, be manageable at a local level becomes unmanageable at the global level. Without international regulations, non-market environmental costs are not paid. They noted that ‘many environmental problems cannot be resolved equitably, efficiently or sustainably by unregulated markets, and . . . there is no alternative to public intervention in certain situations’.

As with proposals to change ILO rules, non-state actors took the lead in proposing environmental conditionality in world trade. The idea emerged in the 1980s when the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other environmentalist NGOs proposed that developed countries ban the import of timber extracted from tropical rain forests that were not sustainably managed (Grainger, 1993). The Brundtland Report later argued that GATT should ‘reflect concern for the impacts of trading patterns on the environment and the need for more effective instruments to integrate environment and development concerns into international trading arrangements’ (WCED, 1987).

NGOs continued to press their case, receiving growing support from the governments of developed countries. Both share a globalist environmental discourse that gives a high priority to the needs of the planet, though there are important differences between them. For governments the globalist discourse is a convenient way to promote the cause of the environment overseas without having to impose too heavy a burden on their own economies. Although it would be unfair to deny that such a stance does have a moral dimension, intended to appeal to ‘Green’ opinion within the electorate, limiting artificially cheap imports from developing countries helps to defend jobs at home, something that is of even greater concern to the electorate.

The NGO discourse, on the other hand, is politically naive: for the sake of the planet developing countries cannot be allowed to repeat the mistakes made by the developed countries. If they will not curb their environmental degradation voluntarily, they must be forced to do so by trade sanctions. Environmental NGOs also equate free trade – of the kind promoted by the WTO – with the globalization of the world economy and all of its allegedly negative effects, including the erosion of national economic and environmental sovereignty. So they believe that uniform international environmental standards are necessary to protect developing countries against these forces. But what they are actually doing, albeit unconsciously, is helping to extend globalization from the economic into the environmental arena. Far from reducing the exploitation of developing countries, this will reinforce it.

Unsurprisingly, environmental conditionality is opposed by the governments of most developing countries. They are all too aware of the perils of economic globalization and are in no doubt that environmental conditionality is a deliberate attempt to extend it further, and thereby erode their sovereignty and ability to develop. They are not very enthusiastic about integrating the economic and environmental dimensions of development.

Other opponents are found amongst economists (for example, Bhagwati, 1999) and within the WTO itself, where officials believe that environmental conditionality could trigger a new round of domestic protectionism. GATT actually commissioned a study of the links between trade and the environment. This concluded that free trade alone does not cause environmental degradation; a country’s environmental policy must also be inadequate. The study endorsed the sovereign right of each state to formulate an environmental policy that reflects its own values and priorities. It also noted that environmental protection usually improves in the course of development, but this might be hindered by imposing trade barriers that obstruct development (GATT, 1992).

Incorporating environmental conditions into world trade rules would strengthen existing non-tariff barriers. The latter are already present in the form of state subsidies for fishing (estimated at US$50 billion), energy (US$300 billion) and farming (US$350 billion) that the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, the Philippines and the USA claim distort world trade. These states have called for subsidies to be cut to make their own exports more competitive in world markets (Williams, 1999a). Ironically, environmentalist groups also oppose these subsidies, on the grounds that they lead to environmental damage through overfishing, inefficient energy use and the overuse of chemical inputs to produce food surpluses.

Current trade rules and the environment

Present trade rules, which WTO inherited from GATT, are consistent with the typical developing country discourse that it is an unfair restriction on trade for one country to restrict imports from other countries that do not share its environmental laws. These rules were tested when the US government tried to integrate the economic and environmental dimensions of development by banning imports of Mexican tuna, because the tuna boats also caught dolphins, which are a protected species in the USA. GATT ruled in 1991, however, that the USA could not extend its own environmental laws beyond its borders in this way (Esty, 1994). The key point of disagreement in this case is the difference between product and process. GATT rules did not allow discrimination between imports on the basis of the process by which a particular product was made. It was the environmentally damaging process by which the Mexican tuna were caught that was objectionable to the US government, not the product itself, and GATT ruled that this was an illegal restriction on trade.

GATT was aware that its rules could conflict with attempts by individual countries to improve their own environmental performance and with proposals to enforce the eco-labelling of imported products. It also identified the potential for conflict with the principles of international environmental regimes, including the Montreal Protocol, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Basle Convention on Trade in Hazardous Wastes. When WTO replaced GATT in 1995 it established a committee to look into these issues. So far, however, the committee has not been able to agree on a set of recommendations.

Because GATT and WTO member states could not agree to modify trade rules in the way that environmentalist groups wanted, they have been criticized for being anti-environment. Greenpeace called GATT an organization ‘subservient to multinational corporations’ (Dunne, 1992). In the environmentalist discourse, these corporations are the primary beneficiaries of the globalization of the world economy, and free trade promotes environmental degradation as it ignores the non-market values of environmental services. The only way to prevent this is by imposing common global standards. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) opposed the creation of WTO, even calling it incompatible with the goal of sustainable development. It argued that any new body should not just recognize ‘the need to set limits on trade in order to adequately protect the environment’, it should also adopt environmental protection and poverty eradication as explicit objectives. WWF also called for NGOs to be consulted as of right and allowed to make submissions to trade disputes investigations, and for WTO to establish a trade and sustainable development council (Williams, 1993).

A tendency to secrecy, a trait that always arouses suspicion amongst NGOs, made GATT its own worst enemy. In 1994, for example, the US government suggested that environmentalists should be invited to a meeting of the GATT Governing Council called to discuss a panel report on the USA–Mexico tuna dispute. Other members, however, disagreed: the EU feared that it would set a precedent for other interest groups, while Brazil dismissed the proposal as inappropriate, impractical and unreasonable (Williams, 1994). Environmental groups did attend a GATT conference on trade and environment in 1994 and similar WTO conferences in 1995 and 1999. But despite WTO’s desire to promote greater openness, it still attracts criticism from NGOs (Williams, 1999b).

The Seattle meeting and its repercussions

The battle to integrate labour and environmental standards into world trade rules continued at the WTO meeting in Seattle in November 1999 that was due to launch a new round of trade liberalization talks. However, the inability of WTO member states to reach a decision on these proposals was more a consequence of the general failure of the meeting than of any specific problems with these proposals. The meeting ended in acrimony, proving an excellent example, if any more were needed, of the international anarchy and ineffectiveness of institutions as portrayed by Neo-Realist theory. It is customary for the agendas of international conferences to be agreed beforehand. But this did not happen in Seattle, making it impossible to structure the dialogue to move towards consensus. In the circumstances a chaotic end was probably inevitable.

The absence of an agreed agenda largely reflected the sheer diversity of expectations expressed by participating states. They had divided themselves into a variety of groups, each with its own aims and discourse. The USA and the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters wanted freer farm trade and cuts in European and Japanese agricultural subsidies. The EU, in turn, wanted to discuss ‘anything but agriculture’, including environmental standards and customs reform. The top priority of the developing countries was general trade liberalization to improve access for their goods in global markets but this was not shared by the other participants. On the whole, therefore, far greater stress was still placed on economic issues, rather than on social or environmental ones. Meanwhile, outside the conference hall, thousands of demonstrators protested against globalization and the ‘evils’ of capitalism, which they saw as embodied in WTO. When President Clinton opened the meeting he unexpectedly offered support for the introduction of labour and environmental standards, which only added to the confusion.

The developing countries emerged stronger from Seattle than they had been before, despite being sidelined by the developed countries, as in GATT conferences in the past. Indeed, it was generally acknowledged that one reason for the failure of Seattle was the exclusion of the developing country discourse from the overall dialogue. Dealing with this problem was therefore a precondition for the future success of WTO as a whole. Michael Meacher, then UK Minister of State for the Environment, argued that negotiations on a new round of trade talks, that would ‘address contentious issues such as trade and envrionment in a balanced way’, should not begin until the developed countries had built bridges with developing ones to explain the benefits of linking trade and environmental policies. ‘Many developing countries were very angry that their demands had been ignored’, he claimed. The EU, in particular, would find it hard to convince them that its proposals to add environmental conditions to WTO rules were not ‘eco-protectionism’ while it continued to subsidize agriculture and fishing so heavily (De Jonquières, 2000).

Because the developing countries now have a higher profile at the WTO, it is unlikely that a decision to incorporate social and environmental conditions into world trade rules will be reached in the near future. After almost two years of discussions, a new round of WTO trade negotiations was finally launched at a ministerial meeting held in Doha, in Qatar, in November 2001. At the EU’s request, the subject of environmental conditions was included on the negotiating agenda; but it was not accorded a very high priority at the meeting. Instead, the concluding Doha Declaration merely ‘took note’ of ‘the efforts by members to conduct national environmental assessments of trade policies on a voluntary basis’. It also asked the WTO’s Trade and Environment Committee to undertake negotiations on ‘the relationship between existing WTO rules and specific trade obligations set out in multilateral environmental agreements’, principally to identify any potential points of conflict and to determine whether clarification of WTO rules was required.

The round of talks launched at Doha was portrayed as having been designed to meet the concerns of developing countries by freeing farm trade. Yet when the next WTO meeting took place, in Cancun, Mexico in September 2003, the developing countries discovered that the EU and the USA were offering only limited concessions on farm subsidies, while demanding in return that developing countries agree to a significant extension of WTO rules to include such areas as investment and government procurement, but not initially the environment. By this time the self-confidence and solidarity of the developing countries, now led by a smaller coalition, the Group of 21, was sufficient to withstand these pressures, and yet another meeting collapsed in acrimony.

The ongoing debates at WTO and ILO differ from those at UNCED in one important respect. They are primarily concerned with modifying existing institutions, while those at UNCED were concerned with creating new institutions. Existing institutions always contain considerable inertia to change, but the failure of a proposal at one meeting does not have the same degree of finality as when a proposal for a convention fails even to be discussed at a specially convened conference, such as UNCED. Proposals to impose environmental conditions on trade are likely to return to the WTO’s negotiating agenda in the future, and the relationship between the obligations of states that are members of both the WTO and environmental institutions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, will continue to be debated. Attempts were made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, for example, to include a clause in the Johannesburg Declaration that would give WTO rules primacy over all matters concerned with trade–environment links. This was defeated, however, by an alliance of developing countries and EU member states.

Alternative discourses of globalization and sustainable development

These dialogues at meetings of the ILO, WTO and GATT exhibit a similar kind of conflict between the discourses of developed and developing countries to those discussed earlier in the chapter. However, now the developed countries are trying to integrate the three dimensions of development, while the developing countries oppose this. At the heart of the developing countries’ discourse is an assertion of the right to develop as they wish, according to the existing rules, while the developed countries want to change the rules in line with their own revised perceptions of how development should proceed. Developing countries also object to proposals to add social and environmental conditions to world trade rules as these contradict another basic element of their discourse: that their inferior economic position is a direct result of bias against their interests embodied in the very structure of the world economic system. The proposals would, in their view, consolidate and extend this inequity, and further the interests of the developed countries, rather than enhancing their own pattern of development.

Whereas the inability to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development in the UNCED negotiations could be explained by the low ranking given to the environment by different groups of states, the conflicts that have arisen in the ILO, WTO and GATT dialogues show that the act of integration is itself politically divisive. This is highly significant, though not unexpected, in view of the long conflict between Capital and Labour over integrating economic activity and social welfare. Developed countries are promoting integration in the context of trade because they will benefit economically from a reduction in low-cost imports from developing countries. Developing countries oppose integration because they regard it as both economically damaging and inequitable. They are also aware that the developed countries, and particularly the USA, are reluctant to integrate the three dimensions of development within other dialogues, including climate change, where it damages their own economic interests.

Disagreements over attempts to add social and environmental conditions to major international institutions also reflect alternative discourses on globalization. In one approach, the process of homogenizing global markets is seen to be gradually eroding national sovereignty, while in the other, sovereignty appears to be threatened more by political imbalances between different groups of states. Conditionalists adopt the first discourse. Thus, the governments of developed countries believe that their citizens need protection from weak developing states that cannot introduce and enforce sufficiently strong social and environmental standards. NGOs, on the other hand, believe that externally imposed conditions are essential to protect weak developing states from the voraciousness of hegemonic states and transnational corporations in the global market. Opposing them are anti-conditionalists, primarily the governments of developing countries, which believe that they are withstanding the erosion of their economic sovereignty but want to prevent any new ‘fronts’ from opening up on this global battleground.

This pair of discourses corresponds, in turn, to two alternative discourses of sustainable development. In the globalist discourse, development in all countries is measured against the same ideal balance between the three dimensions of development, whatever their level of development, and hence against the same uniform social and environmental standards. The gradualist discourse rejects uniformity and allows each country’s labour and environmental standards to evolve in step with its economic development, just as it did in developed countries in the past. If sustainable development is represented by the globalist discourse, it could indeed be criticized as ‘eco-imperialism’ on the part of developed countries and their NGOs.

A common factor in these various conflicts is disagreement on how the global environment should be perceived in development. Sustainable development was originally conceived in the World Conservation Strategy as a way of adding economic and social dimensions to the pure globalist environmental discourse which had clearly failed to match the reality of development as perceived in the developing world. Unfortunately, this globalist approach to the environment has been retained in the sustainable development discourses of developed countries and environmentalist NGOs. In this approach the global environment is regarded as separate from the economic and social dimensions of development, and not integrated with them. This explains the blinkered attitude of the US government in the UNCED negotiations, and the almost evangelical zeal with which NGOs promote the addition of environmental conditions to world trade rules. An international consensus on sustainable development will not be possible until the environment is removed from its isolation and integrated with the other dimensions of development. This will allow the developed countries to appreciate the merits of the gradualist discourse on sustainable development, which is the only one compatible with the developing country discourse.

Lest the gradualist discourse appear too lenient in its attitude towards the environment and social welfare, it should be remembered that sustainable development has only ever been regarded as a compromise between the needs of development and those of the environment. This was true both of the original World Conservation Strategy proposal, which gave the environment greater priority than in the subsequent Brundtland formulation, which placed more stress on continuing economic growth to reduce poverty in developing countries. Ever since the publication of the Brundtland Report, in which the discourses of the developed and developed countries were both recognized but not reconciled, the two groups of countries have maintained their separate discourses on sustainable development. The consequences of this have been apparent throughout this chapter. The gradualist discourse is an advance on the Brundtland Report because it provides a concrete framework for achieving a meaningful compromise between environment and development.


The negotiating positions adopted by different states and groups of states in international negotiations give valuable insights into their discourses on the role of the environment in development, the extent to which they wish to integrate it with the economic and social dimensions of development to promote more sustainable development, and the relative importance they assign to each dimension, which determines their perceived optimum development path at a given time.

The contrast between the discourses of the developed countries, particularly the USA, and the developing countries in negotiations before, during and after UNCED supports the argument of Chapter 1 that the two groups of countries perceive sustainable development in very different ways. The Brundtland Report presented sustainable development as a compromise between the environmentalist priorities of the developed countries and the developmentalist priorities of the developing countries. But it did not show how to reconcile them in practice, and only succeeded in establishing common ground through ambiguity. When the two groups of countries met face to face at UNCED their differences could not be obscured.

At UNCED the USA presented a perfect example of a one-dimensional environmental discourse that was globalist in perspective and isolated from the economic and social dimensions of development. In other words, saving the planet is wonderful as long as it does not limit further economic and social advancement. The developing country discourse was differentiated, rather than globalist, placing greatest emphasis on the right to develop and the need to preserve sovereignty over domestic resources. Like the US discourse, it also ranked the environment lowest of the three dimensions but for different reasons. The developing countries also argued that it was important for developed countries to recognize that global climate change is a direct result of the historic environmental costs which they have accumulated during their unsustainable development paths, and which it is now their duty to pay. Neither approach gave much hope that either group of countries yet has the will consciously to integrate the three dimensions of development, or is even aware of the need for this. Discourses are usually slow to change, and a similar stand-off between the US discourse and the developing country discourse occurred at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, ten years after UNCED.

This chapter began by claiming that sustainable development is a creation of international relations. The subsequent discussion has demonstrated that international relations are, ultimately, about the exercise of power and its moderation by diplomacy. The exercise of power by the world’s leading states over the developing countries, in particular, portrayed vividly by political economy theories, was certainly evident in the hegemonic approach taken by the USA to the climate change negotiations. The disparity between its discourse and the typical developing country discourse was all too evident, even though the two did not come into direct confrontation. When they did confront one another in negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity and the abortive Forest Convention, it was startling to see the developing country discourse emerge predominant. Rather more predictable, however, has been the lack of progress in these two areas since UNCED.

It was all too easy in the UNCED negotiations for the developed countries to adopt a purely environmental discourse and for the developing countries to advance a developmentalist one. It was more difficult to maintain this polarity when discussing proposals to incorporate uniform environmental and social standards into the rules of the WTO and ILO, respectively, since the proposals actually promote integration. However, such moves have been resisted by developing countries, reflecting concerns about erosion of sovereignty and the loss of competitiveness that would result from being forced to pay the full social and environmental costs of production. Developing countries also view this form of integration as a ruse by their developed counterparts to extend globalization into the environmental and social arenas, so as to exploit them further and limit their development.

Any economic policy debate today must pay careful attention to how a particular issue will affect the pace of globalization. Developing countries certainly have good grounds for concern about proposals to impose uniform social and economic conditions on international trade. But this globalist discourse is not the only possible route to integration. The alternative gradualist discourse would allow every country to develop at its own pace, with its labour and environmental standards evolving in parallel with its economic development. This is more politically feasible, and just as compatible with the principles of sustainable development. It could also help to resolve the current deadlock between developed and developing countries over what constitutes sustainable development.

If developed and developing countries wish to achieve a common approach they will each have to make concessions to the other’s discourse. Developing countries will have to recognize that they may not be able to develop as rapidly as ideally they would like, while developed countries will have to relinquish their globalist environmental position, adopt a more realistic view about the ability of developing countries to moderate their environmental impacts, and take a more integrated approach to their own development. This will involve acknowledging the environmental costs which they have accumulated over the last few hundred years. Whether either group of countries will follow this advice is difficult to predict. But what should be clear from the discussion in this chapter is that each of the two sets of discourses contains the pieces of the jigsaw needed to assemble a picture that will be mutually recognizable by both groups of countries. Watching the complete picture being gradually assembled over the coming decades should be a fascinating occupation for students of international relations, although it will be an agonizing experience for those who want sustainable development to be achieved sooner rather than later.