AN important milestone on the road to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil this June was reached April 4 in New York. The 161 nations represented in the UN Preparatory Committee for the conference reached agreement on a draft declaration of principles for "encouraging environmentally responsible development." Although the declaration, if agreed to in Rio de Janeiro, will not be legally binding, it will form a basis for public and diplomatic pressures on violators . Yet this progress still leaves tough problems ahead, especially for the United States.
From the outset of planning for the UNCED, developed countries and developing countries have been sharply divided over the focus of the agenda. It became clear early in the process that the conference was to be as much about the North-South dialogue between the rich and the poor as it was about the environment.
Poorer nations argued that the industrial North was primarily responsible for pollution and had an obligation to assist all nations in mitigating its effects. They demanded, further, that efforts to clean up the global environment be linked to "sustainable development" in their societies. Richer countries, including the US, resisted, seeing these demands originally as primarily a move by the less developed South to press the wealthier North for more aid.
But as time has passed, the poorer nations have forced recognition of the fact that cleaning up the environment is as much an economic as a scientific issue. In the New York session they also gained agreement that "the developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command."
Despite agreement on the declaration, substantial issues remain unresolved. Participating nations are far apart on questions of meeting costs of reversing environmental degradation, providing the necessary technology, and protecting the Earth's forests. On issues that strike directly at how people live, work, and travel, questions of the power of an international regime over sovereign nations also arise.
The UN organizers of the Brazil session hope to achieve not only the broad statement of principles, but also agreement on two binding conventions - on global warming and on biodiversity (the protection of plant and animal life). The first, on global warming, is the more controversial. Many nations, including America's European allies, believe that the conference will be successful only if this convention is adopted.
Many see the US as standing in the way. Most nations have reportedly accepted the need for established global limits on emission of the carbon dioxide gases that cause global warming. The US has not; Clayton Yeutter, newly installed chief of domestic policy at the White House, was quoted March 28 as saying, "I have not seen any arguments yet that would persuade me that the US ought to agree to definitive targets and timetables."
For the Bush administration, not only global warming, but most of the remaining unresolved issues on the Rio agenda present major difficulties. The US is the leading emitter of gases damaging to the global climate. For this reason, and because of its wealth, Washington will be expected to take a leading role in measures to reverse environmental decline and contribute to the related costs. Spokespersons from other countries have already stressed that the success of the conference will depend upon the US's
taking a leadership role.
In the current Washington scene, support for such a role seems unlikely. The normal unpopularity in America of foreign aid is compounded by concerns over the deficit, the domestic recession, competing claims of the former Soviet nations, and political apprehensions in an election year. Added to these factors is the ideological resistance in a conservative administration to any acceptance of scientific evidence of global warming.
The decisions of the UN preparatory committee announced April 4 suggest, however, that the US is feeling the pressure of the world's concern on these issues. Meetings on global warming are scheduled with European nations April 15 and with the UN preparatory committee April 30. The chance remains that the US, despite its reservations, can still contribute to a successful outcome of the critical conference in Brazil.