The Long Road From Rio

If only the results could be as spectacular as the spectacle. By June 3, at least 30,000 delegates, heads of state, and assorted hangers-on will have descended on Rio de Janeiro for the U.N. Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED)--the most ambitious global summit in history. So high-profile is the conference that Brazil has spent $800 million to spruce up the city--remodeling the airport, paving streets, cleaning up roadsides, and fencing in parks to keep the homeless away.

Unfortunately, it's not clear that the summit's outcome will be any less cosmetic than Brazil's cleanup. Delegates from 166 countries will tackle an overwhelming array of issues in 12 days, from forest destruction to world poverty. The more than 100 national leaders who plan to show up for the meeting's final three days almost certainly will adopt treaties aimed at addressing global warming and protecting the world's species. They're also likely to adopt Agenda 21, an action plan to curb environmental destruction and promote sound development. Yet few of the leaders have shown the political will to put all this into effect once they get home.

BAD TIMING. The overarching problem: The issues pit rich nations against poor nations and create unprecedented demand for new aid at a time when the global economy is sagging. The result: Under intense pressure from the U.S., diplomats in the two years of talks leading up to Rio hammered out a set of pre-negotiated agreements that have no goals, timetables, or penalties to ensure compliance.

Take, for instance, the pending treaty on global warming. It calls for voluntary efforts to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels, which "doesn't really mean anyone has to do much," says one U.S. official. Nor does the conference directly address population growth, the chief culprit in the environmental destruction and poverty that plague developing nations.

Moreover, it's still not clear how Agenda 21 or the treaties will be financed. That's to be hammered out at the meeting, along with other volatile issues, including the conditions under which rich nations will transfer technology to poor ones. Getting consensus on the financial issues alone, not to mention all the other outstanding matters, will be tough. Says the conference chairman, Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh: "My expectations are very low at this point."

To make Agenda 21 work, it will be critical to find cash fast. Putting the 120 programs that make up the plan into effect would require $125 billion in annual aid to developing nations--$75 billion more than they receive now. Without additional funding for industrial and agricultural development, family planning, and the like, the Third World is unlikely to keep the bargains struck at the conference. And delegates say world leaders will come to Rio with plans to commit no more than $6 billion in fresh aid--barely enough to begin the process.

WHO'S IN CHARGE? Even money won't guarantee results if conferees don't create a powerful body to monitor Agenda 21's progress. The U.N. will get the job, but that's where consensus ends. Sweden, the U.S., and others favor revitalizing the U.N. Economic & Social Council to do it. Other nations want to create a new, high-level commission that would report directly to the General Assembly and have the clout to set priorities.

Even the conference's one certain success--the avalanche of publicity surrounding it--threatens to leave damaging effects. "The danger in Rio," warns Senator Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), "is that publics around the world will be fooled into thinking substantive action has taken place."

It's too early to tar the Earth Summit as an abject failure. Rio is a historic first step that will push sustainable development--a concept aimed at integrating economic development with environmental protection--toward the top of the international agenda. The conference will also lay the foundation for stronger agreements in the future. "Rio is more the beginning of a long process than the end of the road," says Marcos de Azambuja, Brazil's chief UNCED representative. How long it takes to get down that road may depend on how much pressure citizens put on governments to turn conference hype into measurable progress.

      Whether the agreements to be signed in Rio are successful depends on what 
      happens after the conference ends. Here's what's needed:
      Industrial nations need to commit $6 billion each year in new aid to poor 
      The United Nations must sponsor a powerful agency to monitor progress
      Initial action should focus on programs that can be implemented quickly and 
      that set the stage for real change
      Progress depends on building public support for the program
      DATA: BW

Emily T. Smith in New York and Geri Smith in Rio de Janeiro, with Ruth Pearson at the U.N. and Peter Hong in Washington

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