To save the planet Johannesburg summit offers slim chance to

Sunday, August 25, 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Ten years ago, Earth Summit delegates celebrated in the streets of Rio de Janiero. But as leaders of more than 100 nations prepare to gather again -- more somberly this time, in Johannesburg -- delegates admit that little, if any, headway has been made to prevent global warming, species extinctions and other environmental problems.

For nearly two weeks, starting Monday, 65,000 delegates will convene in venues throughout sprawling Johannesburg. It's like the Olympics of world politics.

The mission of the World Summit for Sustainable Development has been stated many ways but those involved say it boils down to this: To save the planet from ecological devastation and rescue billions of people from wretched poverty.

The meeting, organized by the United Nations, is nicknamed "Rio+10" because it marks the 10th anniversary of the landmark Earth Summit in the pulsing South American metropolis, which put environmental issues on the global political agenda for the first time.

Conditions worsening

Today, few of the Rio goals have been met. By many measures, Earth's condition has deteriorated. Global temperatures and sea levels creep upward due to pollution. Deforestation and species losses mount. And as the world's population gallops past six billion, problems of clean water, infectious disease, hunger and our appetite for limited natural resources worsen.

In Johannesburg, summit leaders have made the diplomats' job even harder by expanding the agenda to include issues of enormous human suffering. Add to it the growing resentment that the benefits of globalization continue to be concentrated in the hands of Western corporations and elude the outstretched grasp of the developing world.

Authorities fired stun grenades at about 300 demonstrators who tried to break through a police cordon at a nearby university.

Greenpeace activists also scaled the wall of a building at a nuclear power plant to protest the use of nuclear energy in Africa.

What started in Rio as an exuberant political sprint into a greener, post-Cold War future has turned into a grueling marathon with an uncertain finish line.

"If we do nothing to change our current indiscriminate patterns of development, we will compromise the long-term security of the Earth and its people," says Nitin Desai, the summit's secretary-general.

To many participants, Johannesburg represents perhaps the last good chance to protect the planet.

"Not everything was rosy at Rio," said Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental advocacy group. "But there wasn't the sense that we have today. If we don't get something done and if we have a few more unfortunate developments, things around the world could be unraveling."

And the country that many delegates consider least likely to win a gold medal in Johannesburg? The United States.

Bush will skip summit

At Rio, President George H.W. Bush ignited a diplomatic furor by rejecting accords to protect biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Little has changed since. The United States has angered both its European allies and developing nations by stifling many global environmental accords inspired by Rio, citing economic concerns.

Since Rio, U.S. consumption of energy has jumped 21 percent and greenhouse gas emissions are up 13 percent, according to figures gathered by the United Nations and others.

In June, pre-summit negotiations held in the tropical paradise of Bali disintegrated into acrimony. The United States demanded fiscal accountability and anti-corruption guarantees be attached to its foreign aid, while smaller countries demanded the United States share more technology and comply with international environmental restrictions.

Several delegates wore buttons and T-shirts sporting the undiplomatic quip: "What should we do with the United States?"

To the delight of conservative political supporters at home, President George W. Bush is skipping the summit, deciding not to repeat his father's experience.

"Even more than the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Johannesburg Summit will provide a global media stage for many of the most irresponsible and destructive elements involved in critical international economic and environmental issues," said Fred L. Smith Jr., president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a letter to Bush cosigned by 30 other conservative activists. Smith's group is a nonprofit, Washington-based policy organization

"Your presence," the letter said, "would only help to publicize and make more credible their various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalization, and anti-Western agendas."

U.S. offers of "concrete and practical" solutions will be negotiated by other administration officials, Bush said in a statement. Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Johannesburg on the summit's final days.

U.S. lack of engagement

The United States is said to be preparing an aid package to promote clean water initiatives in several countries, as well as partnerships with business and non-governmental organizations. But the offers are unlikely to contain strict timetables or specific promises.

Delegates grumble about the United States' lack of engagement, especially when Bush is seeking international cooperation in the global war on terrorism.

"We were quite despairing after the Bali meeting because governments weren't willing to make commitments necessary to make real progress," World Wildlife Fund vice president Brooks Yeager said. "This should be about delivering on the promises of Rio."

In exchange for foreign aid accountability, he said, the United States should follow the lead of other nations and make real strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy and recycling. Such policies would pay geopolitical dividends beyond the environment, he said.

"The efforts of United States to mobilize against terrorism would be helped immeasurably if we were part of a broad coalition to address sustainable development," Yeager said.

Summit participants say Johannesburg is further hampered by the combination of a crushing agenda and a looser diplomatic framework.

Unlike their counterparts in Rio, delegates won't arrive with major treaties ready to sign and a global action plan virtually negotiated in advance.

Instead, organizers are seeking two levels of commitments from governments: modest consensus agreements known as Type One, akin to an agreement in principle; and more ambitious, but voluntary commitments known as Type Two.

On the summit's eve, even its organizers are beginning to reconsider the race they're running.

The U.N. food agency now says the target to halve the number of the world's hungry won't be met by 2015.

"It does not imply a failure -- the target was very ambitious, and it can still be reached" but not until 2030, said Jelle Bruinsma, an economist who is one of the authors of the agency's study.

Nobody seems surprised. Since Rio, few of the first summit's grandest ideas translated into action:


At the Earth Summit, 170 nations agreed to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

However, carbon-based emissions increased globally by 9 percent in the past 10 years -- and by 18 percent in the United States. The United States has rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to codify the Rio pledges and make emissions reductions binding.

Bush says the treaty would cost the U.S. economy $400 billion and 4.9 million jobs.

Instead, he suggests voluntary, incentive-based emissions reductions. Those reductions could be illusory, critics say, if the economy grows to expected levels.

Australia, the world's largest coal exporter, has refused to sign Kyoto without the United States, and energy-rich Canada is reconsidering its support.

Europeans widely support the Kyoto accord. Germany has significantly reduced carbon emissions and boosted renewable energy to 20 percent of supply.

But a cooling economy and rising unemployment are weakening the re-election chances of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, one of Kyoto's biggest supporters.

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