THE crucial final negotiations to set the international accords for next June's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the largest gathering ever of world leaders, begins today at the United Nations.
So far, there has been only incremental progress in overcoming the divisions between third-world and industrialized nations across more than 100 summit agenda items.
The five-week session of the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) opens on a note of mixed emotion after last week's difficult round of UN global-warming talks.
Many observers had viewed these climate talks as the best early indicator of the summit's overall prospects for international agreements. Though not fully understood, global warming is believed to be one of the most serious environmental threats facing the world.
But there were mixed reviews of the progress in those talks. Many environment and development experts and third-world summit participants felt that the US has not committed enough to the process they hoped would involve more sweeping change in North-South, rich-poor balances.
Climate change negotiators from more than 100 countries had been deadlocked over stabilizing carbon-dioxide emissions and whether money would be made available to third-world countries to help them curb emissions as they try to expand economic growth.
The US pledged $75 million in aid to developing countries to help them curb the emissions believed to cause climate change, but it did not commit to emissions targets and time tables. A number of industrialized nations, including the European Community, have promised to hold emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Instead, the US said a number of actions being taken to reduce emissions in the US will have effects comparable to other nation's targets.
Third-world diplomats don't want to be held to emissions standards that even industrialized nations won't meet. Moreover, those standards could limit needed economic growth in developing countries unless they receive financial assistance to help develop alternative energies. The US's $75 million was not enough for many third-world participants.
While the US may be a target of criticism in the summitry, it still ranks at the top on environmental score cards as the nation that has done the most all around to protect the environment, observes Michael Deland, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
"There are some very real differences between North and South, splits over money and how development will occur and what monies will be made available," Mr. Deland says. "But all of that said, if out of it were to emerge nothing other than a change in which the world community of nations views the relationships of environment and development it would make the conference successful."
Going into the final preparatory session, UNCED Secretary-General Maurice Strong who has organized the summit, sees progress in summit goals simply in the process of the negotiations itself. "There are a lot of major hurdles to cross in the next five weeks, but there is a strong will to solve them and that's the important thing," says Mr. Strong. He and international affairs experts see the summit process as crucial to "changing political mind-sets."
The summit's environment and development agenda involves complex linkages of technology transfer, trade, poverty, transport, and health; as well as land, air and sea environmental issues such as forestry, desertification, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, energy, biotechnology.
"Across all categories, the whole issue of finance tends to be pervasive," Strong observes. To accomplish the summit's goals, the UN estimates that developing nations will probably have to spend $400 billion to $500 billion annually. Industrialized nations would be expected to supplement that by $125 billion a year, which would represent $70 billion in new spending.