EUROPEAN Community officials have special reasons these days to be preoccupied with environmental issues.
For one thing, their flagship headquarters in Brussels - a 13-story, starfish-shaped behemoth that is not yet 30 years old - stands empty and forlorn, the thousands of Eurocrats who until recently worked there no longer willing to breathe the asbestos-stuffed building's air.
But that is a minor inconvenience: Brussels is a city where new office buildings rise faster than Belgian waffles, so finding alternative space has not been all that difficult.
More problematic for the Community is its difficulty in putting together a coherent and toothy environmental policy before June's global Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
With some member countries dragging their feet on new anti-pollution standards, and with European industries bristling at regulations they say would put them at an international disadvantage, EC hopes of pulling off a public relations coup at the Rio summit are beginning to fade.
EC expectations of an image boost from the Rio conference were reasonable enough. EC countries are already committed to stabilizing carbon-dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 - a position that has garnered praise from both environmental organizations and the world's developing countries. All the EC needed were the regulations for making the 1990 commitment a reality, and it could arrive in Rio with a solid policy that would make it an example for the wealthy North and prove its solidarity
with the struggling and less-energy-profligate South.
Making a success of Rio was all the more important to the EC after its international image was weakened at the equally high-profile General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) ministerial meeting in Brussels in December 1990. The meeting on world trade reform collapsed after EC ministers refused to cut agriculture subsidies and open their markets to more produce from developing nations. The United States positioned itself as the champion of the world's poor farm producers.
EC leaders sensed that Rio was their chance to shine on the international stage - especially with the US refusing any commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, and with President Bush waffling on whether or not he will even attend the conference. EC Environment Commissioner Carlo Ripa de Meana lambasted Mr. Bush's "hostility" to any international global-warming measures as "an attack at the very heart of the Rio conference."
"We are not unhappy to have an issue of international importance where we are on the offensive and [the Americans] are on the defensive," an EC official says.
Yet the EC's problem remains: approving concrete measures to back up its carbon-dioxide commitment by June. Experts say the emissions goal can only be achieved through a tax on energy consumption. Industry leaders say such a tax will devastate them if their US and Japanese rivals don't face the same burden.
Meanwhile, EC member states are dragging their feet on submitting plans to accompany the EC measures. Senior EC officials April 15 blocked new regulations on energy use in buildings - which accounts for nearly half of Europe's energy consumption.
All of this has yet to make the EC give up its goal of stealing the show in Rio. But officials say time is running short, and consider a May 26 environment ministers meeting the last chance.
"It's very important that the Community come through with the concrete measures to back up its commitments," says a spokesman for Mr. Ripa de Meana. "Our international credibility is in the balance."