Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Compromises Make Agreements

Compromises Make Agreements

Sunday, 3 July, 2022 - 04:15
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

As in politics and economics, so in environment and climate; it is compromises that allow for reaching major agreements, where facts are intertwined, interests are diverged and options are conflicting. Compromises are not a defect, as no one is the sole possessor of the truth in these complex issues.

Probably the initiative most expressive of the world’s recognition of the necessity of negotiating environmental issues in order to reach acceptable compromises is the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, which monitors international meetings on environment, development and climate on daily basis. Since its launch at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, this publication has become the most important reference for documenting the positions of countries and organizations in negotiation meetings, based on reports prepared by independent correspondents attending the discussions. The bulletin is issued by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a non-governmental organization founded in Canada in 1988. The bulletin’s name reflects the reality facing environmental and development issues, as what the world needs to save this endangered planet is nothing less than serious and honest negotiations for Earth’s sake.

Compromises accompanied international environmental action since its early days at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. But they emerged strongly for the first time in the negotiations to protect the ozone layer, which began in 1982, and whose results were for years limited to general understandings about the need to reduce emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that deplete the ozone layer. However, scientific research during subsequent years found that reducing the use of these harmful substances is not enough, as it must be stopped completely and fast. Scientists suggested the year 2000 as a date for complete abolition of CFCs. But when negotiators failed to reach an agreement, a compromise was reached in 1987 to reduce production and use by half in 2000, and to give developing countries a grace period as well as technical and financial assistance to enable them to comply. With the success in implementing the provisions of the agreement being achieved faster than expected, member states later decided to bring forward the date of the total moratorium on ozone-depleting substances, not just 50 percent, to 1997. The world succeeded in implementing this goal.

When Mostafa Kamal Tolba, then Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who was running the negotiations in 1987, reversed his initial position on completely ending production and use of ozone-depleting substances by the year 2000, some accused him of betraying the environmental cause. At the forefront of the attackers were non-governmental organizations, led by Greenpeace. To this, Tolba famously replied: “If we want to protect the environment, let us start with one step, and more steps can follow. What cannot be realized in full should not be totally abandoned.” Developments over the course of the few coming years proved that Mostafa Tolba had not betrayed the cause, he simply was more realistic, which paved the way for unprecedented success.

This does not mean at all giving up scientific facts and keeping silent about environmental crimes. Criminals who wreak havoc on the environment and nature must pay the full price, according to strict laws, whether it is related to polluting land, water and air, or depleting and wasting natural resources. While this type of crime should be outside the scope of compromises, complex issues, such as climate and the ozone, involve manifold aspects that affect each other, demanding solutions based on delicate balance between many options.

Things are not always black & white, as the interim solution sometimes may be grey. There are hard scientific facts that should not be bargained with. However, it may be necessary to subject the implementation plan to analysis that takes into account all the implications, leading to a phased plan on this basis. The hasty end of fossil fuels, for example, is not in the interest of the environment, if it occurs before providing alternatives, as it might lead to harmful consequences, such as deforestation caused by cutting forests in search of firewood for cooking and heating in poor countries.

A few days ago, I reminded Fouad Hamdan, a prominent global environment activist, currently working with German organizations on human rights and nature, of a conversation we had back in 1999, when he was leading Greenpeace campaigns in Beirut. At that time, Greenpeace activists were beaten by security guards when they stormed a polluting factory, and stopped its work for some hours. While most of the information they gave about pollution levels and types of pollutants was correct, one piece of data was wrong, a shortfall which was highlighted by the polluters. My advice was that environmental organizations should always adopt accurate scientific data in all their statements, because making one small mistake gives polluters an excuse to question all the other facts. My opinion at the time was that the activists did their duty by protesting, while the security guards did their job when they prevented them. Confrontation, within limits, is useful for environmental action, and if the police had not beaten the demonstrators with batons to prevent them from storming the factory, the media would not have paid attention to the issue and put it on front pages and in the headlines of news bulletins.

I also conveyed to Fouad Hamdan what Dr. Mostafa Tolba had confided to me while working on his memoirs in 2015: Tolba considered that the protests staged by environmental organizations, at the forefront of which was Greenpeace, and even accusing him of betraying the environmental cause when he accepted an interim settlement on the ozone issue, strengthened his position and gave him support to reach, after a few years, better terms than what Greenpeace considered to have been waived. In such a type of negotiation, the secret is to choose what to take and what to leave, in order to make a step forward towards achieving the ultimate goal at the earliest opportunity.

Here, I reveal another secret: when environmental activists stormed a conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) to confront the head of an organization concerned with international development, who was among the speakers, demanding greater attention to environmental issues and clean and renewable energies, my response, as Secretary-General of the host organization, was to expel the protesters from the hall. I remember that the head of the organization at which the protest was directed told me: “They did their duty as you have done yours.” He also asked for footage documenting

the protest, because, as he said, those would help him convey the message of the protestors, reflecting change in public opinion, to member governments, “in order to facilitate better understanding leading to compromises.”

I mentioned ‘compromises’ in an article I wrote recently on the fiftieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference on the Environment, to which a journalist friend replied that “had it not been for compromises, disasters would not have increased.” Thanks to him for inciting me to write this article, to make it clear that the right compromises may lead not only to preventing disasters and achieving goals in the medium run, but sometimes to strengthening goals and accelerating timelines, as was the case regarding the ozone agreement. This needs negotiators skilled in diplomacy, who can base their arguments on science and support their position by law.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED ( and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine (

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks