`THIS conference is going to look like it'll collapse before it's over," Earth Summit chief Maurice Strong said nine days ago. "I think you'll see lots of controversies right up to the last."
As some 130 national leaders gather from around the world to begin two days of speechmaking tomorrow and Saturday, Mr. Strong's prediction is proving absolutely correct.
Virtually every single issue of consequence remains controversial right up to the end, and some may not be worked out until after all of the heads of state and government have had their allotted seven minutes at the podium in the plenary hall. Spokesman's report is glum
With one day of official delegate meetings to go before the pomp and circumstance, Jean-Claude Faby, chief spokesman for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), had this to report about the major areas in Agenda 21, the summit's proposed plan of action:
* On climate and atmosphere change: "Still rather a difficult situation."
* On biodiversity and biotechnology: "The picture is disparate."
* On forests: "Things are moving slowly and much more is needed."
* On how to pay for environmental protection and for encouraging development in poorer countries: "The situation is becoming more complex rather than more simple."
"Our problem is that time is running out," said Mr. Faby, adding that some sticking points had to be sent back to capitals for decision.
A daily bulletin of Earth Summit affairs published by nongovernmental organizations here reported that after a three-hour session on finances, "the mood of delegates meeting in the closed meeting room was far less optimistic than when they had entered."
There were also threats that the Rio Declaration, the lofty set of summit principles that have no force of law, could unravel as well. The United States was holding out on some issues, a US official explained, because they were tied to problematic items in Agenda 21.
Among these were 10 references to people "in occupied territories" (inserted by critics of Israel) and to the North as bearing primary responsibility for global environmental problems.
What the US is holding out for, said senior negotiator Michael Young, is a "total package" of principles and action items.
What many delegates are learning, said Brazil's acting Environment Minister Jose Goldemberg, is that "there's a big difference between rhetoric and action."
"Rhetoric is very easy, action is very difficult," he said.
Some actions here this week have given the impression of further isolation of the US. Britain has said it will sign the biodiversity convention. The US remains adamantly opposed to the treaty, but will propose a project to catalog the world's plants and animals as a first step toward preserving global biodiversity, a US official says.
And the 12 member countries of the European Community have agreed to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The US is against such "targets and timetables" for reducing carbon dioxide (a so-called "greenhouse gas") in the atmosphere.
One piece of action taken is being universally lauded at Rio. This is the decision by UNCED negotiators to recommend the establishment of a special UN commission on sustainable development.
This commission would provide an official forum for continuing work on Earth Summit issues and also a place to hold nations and international organizations (like the World Bank) accountable for the impact of development on the environment.
Meanwhile, many working in the high-pressure atmosphere at summit headquarters outside Rio de Janeiro are ready to declare victory and go home.
British Secretary of State for Environment Michael Howard calls the conference "a staging post on a long journey."
Swedish Minister of Environment Olaf Johansson says: "We see the UNCED meeting here as the beginning of a long process."
And even some outside the official delegations and more likely to be critical of government activity (or lack of it) on the environment are not all glum.
"In a sense, UNCED already has had the highest level of success that it could be expected to have," said Michael Oppenheimer, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. `A message has been sent'
"With over 100 heads of state here and many other countries represented, a message has been sent to every government, every bureaucrat, every minister that environmental protection resides at the top of the political agenda for the 21st Century," says Mr. Oppenheimer. "I expect the process to go on for another 20 years."
As government heads begin to arrive, security in and around Rio is being tightened considerably. Beginning this morning, 31 main streets, tunnels, and overpasses are closed to the public.