One Year After Rio: The U.S. Waves A Green Flag

At last June's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, leaders of 172 nations made plenty of promises. Compelled by the fear that human activity may one day ruin the planet, they fashioned a controversial plan for sustainable development--a more environmentally sound approach to growth that hinges on relieving poverty, conserving resources, and cutting pollution. They signed Agenda 21, an 800-page blueprint, and most agreed to two landmark treaties--one to combat global warming, one to protect plant and animal species. Everyone vowed to act on these programs, and rich countries pledged aid to help poor nations bear the burden.

A year later, most of the promises are still rhetoric. "Every world leader ought to be embarrassed," says Kenneth Collins, chairman of the European Parliament's environmental committee. The inaction doesn't seem to bode well for the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which on June 14 will begin its first annual meeting to evaluate progress on last year's accords. Oddly enough, though, the meeting could reignite Rio's momentum. Odder still, the U.S. may strike the spark.

LEADERSHIP. In an about-face, the U.S. is backing sustainable development and plans to push other nations to do so. Clinton has said he'll reverse key Bush Administration positions: The U.S. will sign the treaty to preserve species. It has pledged to cap emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000. It will work to stabilize world population (table). And the State Dept. has put some 150 people under Counselor Timothy E. Wirth to help with Rio follow-up.

More lies in store. Vice-President Al Gore is scheduled to address the CSD meeting on June 14. There, he is expected to outline the U.S.'s philosophy for Rio follow-up at home and announce a Presidential commission that will draw up a plan to make U.S. growth consistent with sustainable development principles. Some in industry worry about the fallout, especially from the U.S. plan, due in August, to cut greenhouse gases. But Norine Kennedy, director of environmental affairs at the U.S. Council for International Business, a group that represents U.S. business interests abroad, sees a plus in the new attitude. She says U.S. industry will have a greater voice in shaping international environmental policies if Washington sets the agenda. Indeed, the Administration's goal is to "reestablish leadership for the U.S." on the environment, says Kathleen A. McGinty, director of the White House Environmental Policy Office.

That's a radical change. The U.S. was the bte noire of Rio, where Bush refused to sign the biodiversity treaty, watered down the climate protocol, and resisted suggestions that industrial countries should curb conspicuous consumption. "When a country as important as the U.S. is negative, it lets everyone off the hook," says one U.N. official. By late May, only 17 countries had ratified the biodiversity treaty and 20 the climate protocol. European Community countries, plagued by weak economies, have shelved plans to curtail oil consumption by imposing a $10 tax on every barrel of oil by 2000. And last December, when 34 leading industrial nations met to plan foreign aid for 1993 to 1996, they failed to deliver on a Rio pledge to boost aid and earmark some World Bank funds for environmental projects.

BACKTRACKING. The U.S. shift could help reverse all this. The CSD, comprised of delegates from 53 countries, is supposed to build a consensus on implementing Agenda 21, help find financing for poor nations, and monitor progress. What the CSD will monitor--and how--is a delicate issue. "It's the core of whether the commission will be a significant player," says S. Jacob Scherr, senior attorney at the pro-environment Natural Resources Defense Council. At Rio, many nations supported quantitative measures of progress. But "everyone has backed off," says Luis Gomez Echeverri, head of the environment program at the U.N. Development Program (UNDP). Poor nations don't want the CSD to be a watchdog along the lines of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Industrial countries wish to avoid reporting their penurious financial aid.

The Clintonites say they'll back quantitative measurements and accountability. And though they'll surely compromise, many U. N. officials say the odds are much better under this Administration that CSD reporting requirements will have some teeth.

Meanwhile, the U.S. wants to play peacemaker in negotiations over an aid kitty. Rio delegates agreed to make the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a fund administered by the World Bank, a conduit for helping poor countries comply with the agreements. However, rich and poor nations have argued over how to reorganize the GEF for the task. At a May meeting in Beijing, where the World Bank asked for up to $3.9 billion in new funds, the U.S. agreed for the first time to be a major donor--if the fund is restructured so donor countries can see where their money goes even as poor countries get more say in how they spend it. Some observers think the U.S. position will make a compromise on the GEF easier.

FOREIGN AID. The Clinton Administration also wants to redirect some U.S. foreign aid toward sustainable development. It has just reviewed USAID, the main vehicle for sending U.S. money abroad, and Wirth says the White House will recommend spending more on such projects as renewable energy, population planning, and sustainable agriculture. Administration officials also say the U.S. will lobby to change lending practices at multilateral development agencies to ensure that they don't support projects that destroy natural resources. Together, those agencies control about 21% of the world's $57 billion in official development assistance.

Such actions matter. Echeverri says a recent U.S. pledge of funding for UNDP's Capacity 21, a program to help poor nations devise plans to implement Agenda 21, helped him win commitments of $50 million from industrial nations. "The future of the Rio process absolutely depends upon the U.S.," says Lucas Reijnders, an adviser to the Dutch govern- ment on environmental issues. If the Administration moves forward at home, and if it can deliver some aid to developing nations, Europe and Japan will follow, some European officials say. In return, poor countries may be more willing to conserve their rainforests and wildlife.

Still, U.S. influence ultimately depends on action--no small challenge. Support for sustainable development will have to compete with other priorities, including aid for Russia, in an already tight foreign-aid budget--roughly $13 billion for fiscal 1994. Action at home would likely require legislation of new incentives to cut pollution and protect ecosystems such as old-growth forests, moves that will be controversial. "Bottom line, it's what the U.S. does that counts," says James W. McNeill, a senior fellow at Canada's Institute for Research on Public Policy. "It's too early to tell." Although if words become deeds, the Rio accords may yet come to life.

      The Clinton Administration plan for a Rio follow-up:
        -- Develop a U.S. strategy for sustainable development
        -- Sign a biodiversity treaty--which the Bush Administration refused to 
      do--to preserve plant and animal species
        -- Pledge to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. at 1990 levels by 
      the year 2000
        -- Support efforts to stabilize world population and earmark $100 million in 
      new money for such programs in 1994
        -- Push to redirect foreign aid to support sustainable development 
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