George Bush is getting mixed advice on whether he should attend the U.N. Conference on Environment & Development in Rio de Janeiro in June. We think he should. His presence would send a message about the importance of the issues, while his absence would stick out like a sore thumb--since the heads of state or government of other important industrialized countries will attend. Besides, the possible payoff--reducing the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection--is too great to be passed up, especially with two valuable, legally binding treaties on the table.

Where should the U.S. stand at the meeting? For a start, Washington should endorse the Rio Declaration, a far-reaching statement with many worthy goals--from the eradication of poverty to the principles of sustainable development. Then, the U.S. can perform a real service by injecting a strong dose of reality into Agenda 21, an 800-page action plan designed to achieve these goals. We agree with many of the ideas expressed, including more efficient use of energy and materials, family planning, and increased aid to developing countries. But Agenda 21 would require a degree of political cooperation and surrender of sovereignty that just isn't going to happen anytime soon.

The developing countries are asking the industrial world for $75 billion a year in additional aid for the next seven years. President Bush is right to be leery of making a bad deal for the U.S. Given the budget deficits at home, the uncertain world economy, and the needs of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it's unrealistic to expect industrial countries to dig into their pockets for much additional money. But by redirecting existing foreign aid, Washington ought to be able to put a few billion a year into programs to implement parts of Agenda 21. Similar options are open to other industrialized nations. Without funds, the developing countries aren't going to do anything--and it is a fact that poverty destroys the environment as much as industrialization's pollution, as the devastation from deforestation and overfarming show.

At the meeting, the U.S. will have to take positions on a number of other thorny issues. The most controversial is climate change. The industrial world will be under pressure to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. But the cost would be enormous, and there is still debate over how much of a threat such emissions pose. It is far more reasonable to aim instead at stabilizing emissions at early-1990s levels by the turn of the century. Implementing measures for energy efficiency already proposed such as the Administration's National Energy Policy, plus a judicious mix of additional incentives for energy efficiency, could make this goal attainable in the U.S.

The conference will also produce a treaty seeking to preserve biodiversity, the whole array of plants, animals, and other life that share the world. Here a key issue is that the developing nations want to be paid for the use of their biological resources, such as medicines from tropical plants. If that can be done in a sensible way, the U.S. should agree to reasonable compensation. But the developing countries must show, to the U.N.'s satisfaction, that the money is being used efficiently and effectively.

The Rio Conference is the start of a very long but ultimately worthy process. As the richest country in the world, the U.S. has a major role to play. And an obligation.

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