As technicians switched off the internet linkups in the conference center media lounge, and the kiosk at the ballroom level sold its last mango juice, 10 days of bargaining and debate, cocktail parties and protests came to an end Wednesday at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development.
But for all the ideas presented, pledges and partnerships announced, and intense media coverage devoted, the questions remain: What was achieved, and is our planet going to be a better place?
The summit produced an ambitious 70-page plan toward "sustainable development" helping the world's poor without damaging the environment in the development process. But the plan, expected to be approved late Wednesday by the more than 100 heads of state assembled here, is non-binding.
Among the goals agreed upon: By 2015, cutting in half from 2 billion the number of people who lack access to basic sanitation; removing trade barriers that burden developing economies; restoring the oceans' depleted fish stocks. There were also resolutions to curb the loss of biodiversity and clauses supporting the idea of phasing out agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries, which are criticized by developing countries for protecting markets for developed farmers.
But in the eyes of many here, the plan ended up being too much of a compromise.
"It's good news if you don't have a toilet or if you're a fish," says one observer, noting the relatively strong clauses on water and fisheries. "Otherwise, it's nothing."
Environmental activists complain that on the contentious matter of energy, the lack of timetables for increasing alternative sources such as solar and wind power proves the plan lacks teeth. Environmentalists also criticized the lack of a forceful admonition to nations that have not yet ratified the 1997 Kyoto agreement to reduce so-called greenhouse gases.
"I don't think these summits can work with so many people. Too many agendas are fighting for attention; important issues are buried; nothing is nailed down," says Zach Goldsmith, an environmental activist and editor of the Ecologist Magazine. "Can we now wait another 10 years before we have another such opportunity? We don't have time for these intolerable compromises."
By staying on his Texas ranch and sending Secretary of State Colin Powell instead, President George Bush angered many here already predisposed to blaming the US for hampering efforts toward sustainable development. Jeered and booed by activists during his five-minute speech here Wednesday, Mr. Powell spoke in broad terms about the US's commitment to creating a better world.
In his speech, Powell stressed two themes the US has been pushing here all week: partnerships and accountability. Powell said partnerships voluntary initiatives by which governments, corporations, and grass-roots groups work together on tasks outlined in the action plan were the way forward in development. The US had previously announced a long list of partnerships it was involved with, valued at about $2.4 billion.
Powell also stressed the US position that aid needs to be linked to good governance, transparency, and sound economic policies by the receiving country. He scolded Zimbabwe for bringing its population to the edge of starvation by confiscating white-owned commercial farms. He also reprimanded Zambia for not accepting US donations of genetically-modified corn that would help reduce food shortages there.
Other delegates acknowledged that standing for on accountability and promoting partnerships were good steps, but said that the world's superpower should be doing more.
"Solving the problems of some villages [through partnerships] is not an appropriate stance for the United States," says Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. "It puts us at risk in our foreign policy. We cannot lead the world in a war against terrorism if we don't lead the world in the war on poverty, disease, and environmental degradation."
Meanwhile, China's announcement here that it had ratified the Kyoto agreement and Russia's promise that it planned to do so "in the very near future" were both heralded as important steps towards bringing the agreement into effect. US Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Whitman said Bush supported other countries' ratification of the deal, but that the agreement was not appropriate for the US, which, she argued "is taking other action to limit climate change."
Trying to downplay the disappointment felt here, organizers said that the gathering was more substantive than the one in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago.
"Sustainable development is firmly back on the agenda. We realize we need to maintain that delicate balance between development and the environment," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. "I think we have to be careful not to expect conferences like this to bring miracles."
The real measure of success here, stressed Mr. Annan, is yet to come. "Johannesburg is a beginning. If we maintain the momentum ... this conference will have made a major contribution," he said at the final press conference of the summit.
In a speech here this week, Gro Harlem Brundtland, UN World Health Organization director general, said environment-related illnesses kill the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of children every 45 minutes.
"I can't believe that," said Roni Moyo, a South African working as a volunteer at the conference, directing world leaders to the side exits on the last day of debates. "But if they were talking here about changing that ... then I suppose this was an OK meeting."
Some main points from the draft Plan of Implementation expected to have been approved Wednesday night.
WATER AND SEWAGE: Calls for halving the proportion of people without access to clean water and decent sanitation by 2015.
ENERGY: Encourages helping the poor gain access to electricity, and "substantially increase" global renewable energy.
AID: Urges rich countries to make "concrete efforts" to give 0.7 percent of their national income to development aid.
PRECAUTIONARY APPROACH: Reaffirms that a state has a duty to protect the environment from a new product, even if there is no conclusive evidence that it could damage the ecosystem.
GOOD GOVERNANCE: Says that democratic institutions, the rule of law, gender equality, and an encouraging environment for investment are essential for developing countries.
POVERTY ERADICATION: Calls for the creation of a voluntary fund to eradicate extreme poverty.
TRADE: Restates the willingness of rich countries to negotiate an agreement by 2005 for "substantial improvements in market access" for developing-world products.
SUBSIDIES: Reaffirms rich countries' position that they are willing to launch talks on the eventual phaseout of all export subsidies and "substantial reductions in trade-distorting domestic support."
GLOBALIZATION: Praises globalization for encouraging trade and growth and raising living standards, but acknowledges that there are "serious challenges."
PRIVATE CAPITAL: Encourages "public-private partnerships" in sustainable development.
CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION: Says that "fundamental changes" are needed in the way societies produce and consume, and that developed countries should take the lead to ensure that the cycle is sustainable.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Says that "change in the earth's climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind," and that states that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol on global warming urge states that have not ratified to do so "in a timely manner."