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Earth Summit Draws Pessimism World Leaders Gather At U.N. For Environmental Checkup

At odds over how to protect forests, the atmosphere and their own budgets, world leaders gather in New York this week to see how well they’ve followed the path to environmental health and global wealth laid out at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The early consensus: not very well.

“My prime minister is not coming,” confessed the conference chairman, Razali Ismail, the Malaysian ambassador and U.N. General Assembly president.

“He told me he is disappointed over the results of Rio … the backpedaling and fudging.”

Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad is not alone. Leaders of China, India, Mexico and other Third World nations are snubbing Earth Summit Plus 5. But 60 other leaders, including Bill Clinton, will join in the five-day marathon of five-minute speeches that begins Monday.

But few are optimistic.

“All that’s happening is watering down,” Greenpeace’s Clif Curtis said of the final documents the conference will adopt next Friday.

The 1992 summit produced a non-binding treaty to combat global warming by reducing “greenhouse gas” emissions; statements of principles guiding forest protection and pairing economic growth with environmental protection; and a treaty to preserve biodiversity.

Since Rio, governments have also signed treaties to stem the spread of deserts and to better protect migratory fish stocks. And progress can be reported on setting limits on the world population: The number added each year has peaked just below 90 million and begun to decline.

But other news is bad.

Annual emissions of carbon - carbon dioxide is a key greenhouse gas - have risen to 6.2 billion tons a year. Fresh water is increasingly scarce. Forest is being lost at a rate of one Iowa - 55,000 square miles - per year. And the number of people in absolute poverty - on less than $1 a day - has edged above 1.1 billion.

The documents being debated here address a litany of planetary ills.

But negotiators say three major disputes would need intervention by national leaders:

Global warming

Governments are negotiating to put teeth into this treaty by the end of 1997, by making greenhouse gas cut-backs legally binding for industrial nations. The European Union proposes targets and timetables for U.N. summit endorsement. But Washington has been slow to approve. A U.S. Senate majority vows to block any treaty that does not require carbon dioxide reductions in China and other developing countries. A decision is expected to be postponed.

Forest watch

Since Rio, a U.N. panel has produced more than 100 recommendations for protecting forests. But some timber-trading countries now propose a binding treaty to control logging globally. Many environmentalists oppose the idea as a distraction from fulfilling agreements already on the books.

Aviation tax

The European Union wants the U.N. summit to endorse a global tax on airline fuel. It would both tax a major source of pollution and, its supporters hope, provide financing for sustainable development in the Third World. But the United States, Japan and others oppose the idea.

The aviation tax is the strongest financial proposal at the New York summit, British environmentalist Felix Dodds said. “If they don’t do that, I think it will give a clear indication of how things will go.”


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