THE June Earth Summit in Brazil, once viewed as the ceremonial end to more than two years of bargaining, is increasingly seen here as a beginning.
That shift in terms is partly attributed to the mountainous pile of unresolved issues still facing delegates from 170 nations attending the fourth and last session of the preparatory committee (Prepcom) of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The five-week session, proceeding in several small basement rooms of the UN, closes April 3.
Many delegates say talks will have to spill over into the conference in Rio de Janeiro, where speeches and document-signing were to be the main focus.
"It looks increasingly as if the first 10 days of Rio are going to be a ... full-blown negotiation session," says Mark Valentine of the US Citizens Network, a coalition of more than 160 environmental groups.
Though next week could produce a breakthrough or two, the crucial question of finances will be left almost entirely to heads of state meeting in Rio. At issue are how much extra help will be provided (developing nations want separate new funds) and how to deliver it.
UNCED Secretary-General Maurice Strong has long insisted that Rio is "primarily a conference about economics." He estimates the extra annual cost of environmentally safe development at $70 billion. The industrialized countries of the North now give $55 billion a year in development aid. Mr. Strong says the increase is easily achievable.
"The real question is whether we're willing to give saving the planet the kind of priority we've given so many other things including traditional military security," he says. US close to commitment
The United States, seen as a promoter of the status quo because of its steady stance against targets and timetables, new institutions, and new funds, took one step closer to a new commitment this week. Chief US Delegate Curtis Bohlen conceded at a UN evening session on finances that the US does accept the idea that new and additional resources will be required for developing and transitional nations, including those of Eastern Europe.
Much of the money would finance a 29-point voluntary action plan for the 21st century known as Agenda 21. Currently more than 2,000 pages long, the plan covers every conceivable topic from poverty to freshwater resources. US Citizens Network chairwoman Fran Spivy-Weber says delegates are still debating how best to protect whales and dolphins from commercial fishing operations and how best to share waters that flow through or by more than one country. Delegates are about one-third of the way through Agend a 21.
"Many areas show the potential for agreement if only there were more time," says Ms. Spivy-Weber.
The proposed Earth Charter, ostensibly one of the Prepcom's simplest chores, has become a graphic symbol of the North-South divide. The industrialized nations want a short statement of shared principles. The developing nations, which recently submitted their own draft, want a tougher spell-out of rights and obligations. Their version holds developed nations responsible for "unsustainable patterns of production and consumption" and urges development of liability and compensation law for victims of environ mental damage.
The South, which argues that its resources have often been taken freely by outsiders in the past and are an issue of sovereignty, has its own set of environmental priorities. New report submitted
Many are underscored in a new report called "For Earth's Sake" that was presented to Secretary-General Strong this week. Martin Khor, one of the authors, insisted that it is every bit as important to reform structures that promote poverty and inequity as it is to address such issues as global warming.
Those attending the Rio summit hope to sign both a treaty that protects biological diversity and one that reduces global warming. In the latter, the Europeans have agreed to limit carbon-dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The US continues to resist any timetable.
One more strategy session for about 20 countries, including the US, is scheduled for April 15 in Paris, and a final round of negotiations is expected to begin April 30 in New York. Gore urges 'right decisions'
Sen. Albert Gore, chairman of the US Senate delegation to UNCED who regularly visits the UN to monitor progress on the negotiations, said this week that he thought the European level should be agreed to "at a minium."
Mr. Gore urged the Bush administration to "summon the courage" to make the "right decisions" and take a leadership role in UNCED.
Michael Oppenheimer, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, says the current stalemate in the climate negotiations is "a major threat" to overall progress in UNCED.
"The developing countries are reluctant to make commitments," he says, "until they see the industrial countries, the primary polluters of this planet, willing to do something themselves."