Remember Rio? Sounds like a movie title. But it's actually a terse description of what environment ministers from 19 nations were up to in Germany last month and ministers from 53 countries are tackling at the UN starting this week.
It has been nearly five years since the omnibus Rio Earth Summit attempted to survey global environmental threats and prescribe solutions. Are we any better off in air, land, and water quality since then? Only in marginal ways. Have the main goals discussed at Rio been given binding legal teeth yet? No.
The UN Commission on Sustainable Development meets for three weeks to prepare for this June's special session of the UN General Assembly - dubbed "Earth Summit 2." It will tackle a gamut of well known problems, from the granddaddy of environment issues, "greenhouse gas" emissions, to saving fresh water supplies and curbing certain types of chemical pollutants.
Ever since the first UN-sponsored environment conference in Stockholm two decades ago there has been mistrust between "environmentalists" - nongovernmental watchdog groups like Greenpeace - and governments regulating the industries that burn carbon fuels, manufacture vehicles, harvest timber, fish commercially, and produce agricultural chemicals such as herbicides and fertilizers.
One reason Earth Summit 2 will face difficulty propounding global regulations to be imposed by member governments is that not enough is known about the technology that will lead to manufacturing processes that are truly "sustainable."
New technologies must be applied to produce the tens of millions of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and tractors that China is intent on manufacturing without adding millions of tons of pollutants to the global atmosphere. Affordable substitutes must be found for many chlorine compounds used not only by industry and farm but in hundreds of millions of households. Agreement must be wrestled out between environmentalists and the timber and paper products industries over how renew- able forests are managed.
There is still much debate about what we earlier called the granddaddy issue, global climate change (ne global warming). But evidence of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere is well established. And most atmospheric scientists warn that now is the time to prepare for change, as more of Earth's 5.9 billion people seek to share the wonders of modern life.
Many leaders in industry are believers. They are working hard to design new production systems and build pollution prevention into their manufacturing processes.
To make the regulatory task of individual governments easier, what's needed most is relatively informal conferences among environmentalists, civil servants, and industry leaders. When those diverse groups can find areas of agreement, the UN task of implementing Rio's goals will fall into place. Without such agreement it's difficult to see how people in poorer nations can share the benefits of modern life while still preserving Earth's bounty for their descendants.