Rio Summit Finds It's Not Easy Being Green

Five years after 10,000 diplomats from 178 nations pledged in Rio de Janeiro to clean up the earth, environmentalists have issued a report card.

As expected, most governments are not living up to their pledges, citing budget woes, lack of scientific evidence, or political constraints.

But many successes, and plenty of renewed commitments, were highlighted by the 500 activists at the Rio+5 Forum.

More than a gripe session, the gathering crafted recommendations to the United Nations General Assembly, which itself will pass judgment in June on what's been done since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

The forum issued a draft Earth Charter that calls for renewed public pressure on officials and includes such ideas as internationalizing environmental costs.

"The aim of the Earth Charter is to change people's perspective, to make them see that they are part of nature," said Mikhail Gorbachev, who heads the Dutch Green Cross International.

At the 1992 Earth Summit, 153 nations signed treaties to forestall global warming, save endangered species, and foster sustainable development.

But most experts agree that few governments have begun to make the necessary changes needed. Millions of acres of forests, wetlands, and coral reefs are still despoiled each year and since 1992, the world's population has grown by 450 million. Experts estimate that 75 species of plants and animals are lost each day.

Moreover, government subsidies - the bulk spent on unsustainable development - exceed $700 billion per year, according to the Dutch Institute for Research on Public Expenditure.

"Over all, we haven't made the fundamental change of course promised in Rio," says Maurice Strong, a Canadian industrialist who was secretary general of the Earth Summit. "Five years later, the challenge is even greater."

YET Christopher Flavin, senior vice president for Washington's Worldwatch Institute, says the 1992 agenda may have been too ambitious. "In its vast scope, the Earth Summit set a standard for itself that was almost certain to lead to disappointment," he wrote in the report "The Legacy of Rio."

Another hot topic centered around the Climate Change Treaty, which was supposed to roll back gas emissions blamed for global warming to 1990 levels by the year 2000. But Richard Mott, vice president of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says only five nations are expected to meet the treaty's goals.

Yet others maintain that the past five years have brought some global progress. Consider:

*The Earth Summit led to a global effort to enact stringent air-pollution laws and the phasing out of leaded gasoline.

*The Basel Convention bans many exports of hazardous wastes to developing countries.

*117 nations have created sustainable-development commissions, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

*1,812 cities in 64 countries have adopted local environmental plans, according to the Toronto-based International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

*A coalition of 120 corporations from 35 nations have formed the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group that promotes "responsible company" business practices.

*The World Bank says it has invested $8.5 billion in sustainable development projects in 70 nations.

"In the past five years, people around the world have become more educated about the environment and understand that it's to their advantage to preserve natural habitats," says Gillian Haggerty, spokeswoman for WWF.

Most important, experts say, local officials and communities are working in the absence of national government.

Mr. Flavin says the future is in the hands of what he dubs the "environmental heavyweights" - Brazil, China, United States, India, Indonesia, Russia, Japan, and Germany. Flavin is especially critical of the US, which failed to ratify the Convention on Biodiversity or the Law of the Sea and slashed funds for UN environmental programs. "These eight nations have the Rio agenda and the fate of the earth in their hands," he says.

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