Environmental Front Moves Ahead Slowly

SOMETIMES it's good to look up from the political trench warfare over environmental protection and gauge the big picture. What are the signs that progress is occurring, the indicators that beliefs and practices are changing? Snapshots from around the world might not give one a lot of hope.

Chinese officials last week announced that rapid economic growth had come at the expense of the environment. Few of the major cities meet air-quality standards. Acid rain and the poaching of protected wildlife are big problems. Illegal polluters, like small-scale cement factories, paper mills, and petrochemical plants, ``have staged a comeback,'' an official said.

In Russia, 150 nuclear-power-plant workers traveled to Moscow to demonstrate against low wages and lack of funds for routine maintenance. ``The whole supply system, right from the extraction of uranium to the reactor stage, has broken down,'' union leader Nikolai Krivtsov warned. In Ukraine, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that Chernobyl (where the world's worst nuclear accident occurred in 1986) still isn't up to international safety and security standards.

Two environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, reported that the World Bank continues to fund huge dams and fossil-fuel power plants, which may be good investments for donor countries but aren't necessarily the best thing for developing countries.

And at the United Nations in New York, the Vatican (together with some Gulf Arab states) is doing everything it can to head off population-reduction measures at a conference in Cairo this September. If successful, as these opponents of population control have been in other international forums, they could undermine one of the fundamental ways of bringing about sustainable development.

But these troubling signs also have a positive aspect.

One legitimate reason for concern about population programs can be found in recent news from the Indian state of Punjab. There, the 22-million population has a ratio of 820 women for every 1,000 men. Why the disparity? Because prenatal gender-determination tests have meant disproportionate abortions of female fetuses so that poor families won't have to pay large dowries. The Punjab legislature last week outlawed prenatal sex-determination tests, the second Indian state to do so. This should help pave the way for legitimate family-planning efforts.

China, at least, is acknowledging pollution problems in a way it wouldn't have a few years ago. ``Environmental protection laws need to be modified to include criminal penalties,'' a senior official said. ``Violators should be punished as severely as smugglers and drug traffickers'' - which can mean the death penalty.

The protest by Russian nuclear-power-plant workers would have been unthought of in the former Soviet Union. Environmentalists have been vigorously protesting Ukraine's push for nuclear power. Local and international pressure no doubt is behind Ukraine's announcement last week that it would seek other sources of electrical energy in order to shut down Chernobyl.

Although it has a long way to go, the World Bank - under increased public scrutiny - is working harder to promote projects that are more environmentally friendly. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which went into effect three weeks ago and aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, is an impetus here - particularly since the United States and several other countries are pushing for a tougher global-warming agreement.

The international lending institution last week also pledged to do more for those displaced by dams and other projects. ``I am convinced that with proper planning, much of the hardship and pain associated with involuntary resettlement can be minimized,'' World Bank President Lewis Preston said.

And there is wider public acknowledgment of the moral and ethical importance of preventing pollution and protecting resources. In line with Earth Day this month, the multifaith National Religious Partnership for the Environment is sending ``educational and action kits'' to 50,000 US congregations.

So while the picture is mixed on global environmental protection, the trends seem to be in the right direction.

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