The Road To Rio: Plenty Of Good Intentions, But...

With two months to go before the June 3 start of the U.N. Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED), Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the Rio de Janeiro summit, already looked exhausted. The two-year preparatory process, including a final, five-week spring meeting in New York, had been highly contentious. Delegates from 170 countries had finally O.K.'d an agenda for what Strong calls the most comprehensive international program ever proposed on environmental protection. Yet "many critical issues remain," he says. "We will need a great deal more political will (at Rio) to resolve them."

It's easy to see why. A proposed Declaration on Environment & Development, for example, would commit governments around the world to principles they have never before accepted. The draft approved in New York makes eradicating poverty a global goal and adopts the notion that those who pollute-rich nations, mostly- should pay for the cleanup, then help poor countries improve their standards of living in environmentally sound ways. Developing nations would pledge to curb birth rates. And the declaration would commit everyone to fight environmental threats even before they're scientifically proven to be dangerour.

`WEASEL WORDS.' Beyond that, the game plan gets specific. Agenda 21, an 800 page-plus document, envisions some 120 initiatives between now and 2000. These include steps to cut energy use, protect ocian resources, promote sustainable agricultural practices, and control toxic wastes. Strong, who directed the first global environmental summit in 1972, says some proposals were weakened in the current draft, which has more "weasel words than I'd like to see." For instance, an effort to get multinationals to meet worldwide environmental standards, among other requirements, fell apart. But there will be plenty else to argue over at the 10 day Rio meeting.

The centerpiece is supposed to be the signing of a treaty on climate change. So far, the U.S. has refused to agree to targets for cutting back emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. Developing nations won't agree, either, without assurances of aid that will help them put energy-efficient technology. But by the end of April, a compromise was taking shape, sources say. Industrial nations would stabilize CO2 emissions at current levels by the year 2000. That wouldn't be too difficult for the U.S., since a new study from the Energy Dept. and the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that programs already on the table, such as the National Energy Strategy, would take America to within 4% of that goal. Still, Administration sources insist that the U.S. will agree to stabilization only if the goal is non-binding and includes other greenhouse gases on which the U.S. is already cutting back.

Less visible, and closer to consensus, is a proposed convention on keeping plant, animal, insect, and other species from disappearing. The key question is: Who owns the rights to these? More than 50% of them live in tropical forests. But only industrial countries have the knowhow to harness their genes through biotechnology and create new drugs, chemicals, and food. Typically, companies have used such species without compensating developing nations. A possible solution lies in proposals that would grant forest access for scientific research - but require companies to share profits through joint ventures, royalties, and the like.

Any deals at Rio will be mostly talk unless billions in aid are earmarked to help poor countries comply. So far, industrial nations have made no commitments of funds to implement Agenda 21. Some UNCED officials expect wealthy nations to pledge $3 billion to $6 billion a year, a fraction of the $125 billion the U.N. has suggested.

An equally pressing question is how to administer and monitor the agenda. The U.S. and other industrial nations oppose creating new institutions with requisite bureaucracies. They would prefer that an existing unit of the U.N. be reorganized to take on the monitoring, although just what powers it would have remains to be seen: The U.S., for one, opposes mandated progress reports. Most industrial countries also favor disbursing aid through the Global Environmental Facility at the World Bank, which already funnels money to the developing world. These potential recipients, however, want a separate entity that gives them more say on which projects get funding.

BLASTING BUSH. The failure to resolve such disputes before Rio has incensed other interested parties, including environmentalists and women's groups. "The governments are not living up to their promises about UNCED," says Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation. Indeed, environmentalists and politicians in other nations have blasted the Bush Administration, accusing it of endangering the conference. Officially, the President hasn't decided to join 60 other heads of state at UNCED. But some Administration officials predict that he will.

The criticism may be a bit exaggerated. One high-level U.N. official says other industrial nations that also oppose large funding commitments, plus developing nations that don't want limits on CO2, are "hiding behind the U.S.' Still, Bush has also made a shrewd judgment. "We've never had a strong constituency in the U.S. for foreign assistance," says a top Administration official. he's betting that it won't materialize now.

UNCED supporters hope this official is worong- and that the glare of publicity plus political one-upmanship will shame the U.S. and other major countries into pledging the aid, creating the institutions, and negotiating the compromises required to forge a global partnership for sustainable development. In any event, they say, the UNCED discussions are bound to have an effect. "Rio will be the turning point," predicts Strong, "where we will realize that the future is at risk."

      THE RIO DECLARATION Principles for sustainable development -- from eradicating 
      poverty to making polluters pay for excesses
      AGENDA 21 An 800 - page action plan for sustainable development
      CLIMATE CHANGE A treaty to head off global warming
      FOREST PRINCIPLES Guidelines for managing forests
      BIODIVERSITY An agreement to protect the world's species of plants and animals
      MANAGING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT Commit funds from rich nations to poor.  Set 
      up ways to monitor agreements. Agree on terms to transfer environmentally sound 
      technology to developing nations
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