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Organizers, Environmentalists Divided on Summit Success - 2002-09-03


A senior U.N. official at the World Summit on Sustainable Development is defending the conference against allegations that it is failing to produce the results that many environmentalists had hoped for.

The goal when delegates arrived in Johannesburg was to find a way to implement the lofty ideals discussed 10 years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The Johannesburg meeting should close Wednesday with the adoption of the conference declaration, known as the "Implementation Plan."

But the proposed text of that document has been the subject of much disagreement and intense negotiations. Environmental activists, such as Steve Sawyer of Greenpeace, are unhappy with the final product.

"On the whole, I'd have to say the Johannesburg earth summit has been at best a holding exercise, and at worst a complete failure," said Mr. Sawyer. "It certainly is a failure in relation to the promise and the hope that we had, that 10 years on, governments were serious about approving action plans, which they could begin to fulfill the commitments they made at Rio 10 years ago. But by that criteria this summit cannot be judged a success."

The secretary-general of the summit, Nitin Desai, has tried to fend off that criticism. He says the implementation plan will give the world the tools it needs to get concrete results in the fight to eradicate poverty and save the environment.

"Basically, the whole purpose of this summit is to put sustainable development back on the agenda, create a certain sense of urgency about addressing these problems," explained Mr. Desai. "I think we have succeeded in doing that. The sheer scale of participation ... all of this I think has helped in the first key objective create a sense of urgency, create a sense that we have to act now."

Environmentalists are particularly critical of the deal reached on increasing the use of renewable energy such as solar or wind power. The text calls for a "substantial increase," but includes no firm targets or timetables.

Mr. Desai says the text does include goals, although they are vaguer than many had hoped for. Even so, he said, the deal will form the basis for what he calls a strong global program on more sustainable energy. "I would see this as the strongest mandate on energy that the international system has received from so high a level, so far," he said.

The proposed Implementation Plan does include firm commitments on other issues. It sets a goal to, by the year 2015, get clean drinking water and proper sanitation to half of the two billion people in the world who currently do not have them.

But Kate Hampton of the advocacy group Friends of the Earth says governments are shirking their responsibilities.

"How on earth are we expected to provide water and sanitation to the people without clean and affordable energy?" she asked. "Because it's the same people who lack both energy and water that should have been affected by a positive outcome in this conference. And we haven't seen that."

On energy, many environmentalists believe oil-producing countries including the United States have protected their own economic interests at the expense of the planet. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to address the summit Wednesday.

It may not matter much what he says. Advocacy groups believe the fact that he is the one delivering the speech sends a bad signal. They remain disappointed that President George W. Bush, as leader of the world's richest country, chose to stay home.

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