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ANALYSIS - Earth summit risks failure with vapid pledges

Date: 12-Jun-02
Country: NORWAY
Author: Alister Doyle

Hopes for the Johannesburg summit, seeking ways to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015 while curbing pollution, faded last week after 120 ministers failed to agree a 158-point action plan at a meeting in Indonesia.

Many environmentalists blame the United States for putting the brakes on work on environmentally friendly policies for water and sanitation, energy, agricultural productivity, biodiversity and health.

"There has been a resistance by the United States, Australia and Canada to acknowledge binding commitments of any sort," said Kim Carstensen, who headed the delegation of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) environmental group in Bali, Indonesia.

But governments and environmentalists say it is too early to say whether the World Summit on Sustainable Development from August 26 to September 4 is doomed.

"The formal talks are over but there is much that can be done informally between now and Johannesburg," Valli Moosa, South Africa's Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister, told Reuters. "I am reasonably confident (of an agreement)".

But all reckon it will take a blitz to get the Johannesburg juggernaut, billed as the biggest U.N. summit ever and meant to gather more than 100 heads of state and 60,000 delegates, on to a meaningful track to help save the planet.

Another U.N. gathering, the World Food Summit in Rome this week which aims to cut by half the number of hungry people to 400 million by 2015, failed to attract any key Western political leaders.

Britain slammed the food summit as a waste of time, while the United States has declined to respond to a new U.N. proposal to invest billions of dollars more in agricultural development.

ANODYNE BALI?

"The anodyne draft (in Bali) removed all the targets and timetables from the proposal," said Steve Sawyer, climate policy advisor at Greenpeace. He said the only hope was pressure on what he called "the United States and its poodles".

Unrealistic expectations have dogged the environmental agenda since the Rio Earth summit in 1992 made a first step towards planet-wide cooperation after the end of the Cold War.

But poor nations feel short-changed by Rio and accuse rich nations of preaching policies like protecting tropical rain forests in the Third World while failing to cut gigantic subsidies to their own pampered farmers and fishermen.

Documents from Bali underscore a jigsaw of contradictory interests with brackets around disputed chunks of text.

The European Union insists, however, Johannesburg will reach some form of result rather than collapse in rich-poor acrimony.

Meetings this month which could help rescue the summit include an EU summit in Seville and talks between the seven main industrialised nations (G7) and Russia in Canada.

"Time is short and there will be a lot of work left for ministers and heads of state in Johannesburg," said Pia Ahrenkilde-Hanssen, a spokeswoman for the European Commission. "But we have to do it."

"The United States has an important responsibility and we hope they will be represented at the highest level," she added.

BUSH TO STAY AWAY?

U.S. President George W. Bush looks unlikely to attend - his father went to Rio where the summit agreed landmark international conventions on ways to fight global warming and protect biodiversity.

No conventions are on the table for Johannesburg.

The Rio deal on global warming led to the Kyoto pact on cutting emissions of gases blamed for driving up the world's temperatures. President Bush junior pulled out of Kyoto, arguing it would penalise the U.S. economy and was unfair because it excluded developing nations.

And the United States is wary of making any open-ended aid commitments to developing countries in South Africa.

At Rio, judged a partial success by environmentalists, poor nations hoped for about $70 billion in new funds in environmental programmes but got perhaps $2.5 billion.

(With additional reporting by

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