By Michael Weisskopf and Julia Preston
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 15, 1992
RIO DE JANEIRO, JUNE 14 -- RIO DE JANEIRO, JUNE 14 -- The largest high-level meeting of governments gave final approval today to new principles of environmental stewardship but failed to pledge the financial resources and tough controls widely deemed necessary to curb the excesses of man.
Amid self-congratulatory speeches by Earth Summit delegates, Maurice Strong, organizer of the 12-day United Nations conference, criticized the outcome as "agreement without sufficient commitment."
"When we thought we did it in Stockholm, we didn't," said Strong, a Canadian, choking back tears as he recalled the 1972 conference on the environment in Sweden. "And we don't have another 20 years now. I believe we are on the road to tragedy. As we leave Rio, we have not satisfied that concern. We have the basis for progress, but we have to push ahead."
"The current level of commitment is not comparable to the size and gravity of the problems," U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told delegates as he bade farewell to the plenary session.
The conference, a raucous gathering of 178 nations that split North from South -- and the United States from nearly everyone -- resulted in an unprecedented number of environmental agreements.
Treaties were signed to control global warming and the loss of rare plant and wildlife species. Nonbinding agreements were reached on a statement of forest conservation principles, the Rio Declaration of environmental ideals and Agenda 21, a blueprint for combatting toxic waste, ocean pollution and energy inefficiency.
Uniting nations of widely varying living standards, the accords are the first to try to harmonize the inherent clash of development and environmental interests, acknowledging the mutual interests of rich and poor.
Despite the pessimistic U.N. assessments, others said they found progress in the outcome. Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly, head of the U.S. delegation, said the agreements "will serve as standards against which performance will be measured," much as the Helsinki Accords became a nonbinding international charter to protect human rights.
As frameworks to be fleshed out later, the agreements call for studies and plans that could serve as the basis for periodic reviews by signatory nations. But the agreements fall short of the tough medicine many experts advocated. For example, no new controls will be placed on emissions of "greenhouse" gases that these scientists say threaten to overheat the Earth's surface in less than 50 years, with dire consequences.
No new limits will be placed on exploitation of natural resources, despite the annual worldwide loss of forests equal in size to the state of Connecticut -- and warnings that continued deforestation will eradicate 20 percent of the species of tropical forests in 30 years.
Nor will developed nations open their treasuries and technology banks as generously as U.N. organizers had hoped to save the Third World from the excesses of industrialization encountered in the West.
More than $6 billion a year in new funds was pledged here for "green projects" in developing nations, a seven-fold increase over the pool of money that the Global Environment Facility now dedicates to environmental programs. Strong had sought $125 billion in annual aid.
Formally named the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit was intended to broaden the scope of past conferences, such as Stockholm's, where primary attention was focused on natural resource protection within national boundaries. Threats such as global warming and depletion of the protective ozone layer, being worldwide in reach, have provoked calls for international responses.
This "environmental linkage," as Brazilian Environment Secretary Jose Goldemberg calls it, gave unusual bargaining power to the Third World and transformed the nature of talks here.
With their dense forests serving as sponges for greenhouse gases and a biological cornucopia for pharmaceutical houses, developing nations were in better position to extract compensatory aid from the West. And because their modernization plans threaten to boost greenhouse emissions, they intensified demands for energy conservation technologies.
The new diplomatic stakes left developed nations scrambling for position, leading Brazil's chief negotiator, Marcos Azambuja, to observe that "the world now has a varying geometry, in which alliances form on an ad hoc basis in response to specific issues. There are more nations, fewer actors."
Once the world's environmental standard-bearer, the United States refused to go along with what a White House official called the guilt-ridden responses by other industrialized nations, such as Germany and Japan, to Third World demands, and took a hard line on Third World demands for concessions.
Only the United States boycotted the forest biodiversity treaty, citing its open-ended financial obligations and the extra regulatory burdens it could pose for U.S. biotechnology interests. Washington, alone among industrialized nations, opposed specific targets and schedules for reducing greenhouse emissions because of the costs to heavy industry.
Japan, supposedly ready to make its debut on the world stage, was tentative in negotiations and less generous than many had predicted. Its contribution of $1.4 billion a year in environmental aid marked a 50 percent increase over past funding.
The United States increased its environmental aid by the same percentage, pledging $750 million for next year.
Germany's delegation moved to fill the leadership vacuum, pushing the European Community to reassert its pledge to stabilize greenhouse gases in 2000 and brokered a compromise on forest conservation principles. Bonn has pledged to triple its multilateral aid for green projects.
The Rio Declaration leaned more to rhetoric than actual commitment, stating, for example, that "states shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem."
But even common rhetoric on such complex, centrifugal issues was seen by some as an important first step in bridging the historic differences between North and South. According to President Bush, who spoke here Friday among 116 heads of state, "As important as the road to Rio has been, what matters more is the road from Rio."
The agreements, however, only vaguely map out a future course. The global-warming accord requires industrialized nations to submit reports six months after the treaty takes effect to describe their policies "with the aim of returning" their emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels. But no deadline is given for returning to 1990 levels.
In the biodiversity treaty, nations are required to inventory their species to set a base line for conservation. But there is no timetable for completing the survey, no guidelines for posting the findings and no requirement to follow up the survey to determine how endangered they are.
Although a developed nation is supposed to share the benefits of products derived from tropical forests with the countries in which those forests are located, the treaty does not specify the terms of partnership beyond calling for "fair and favorable" rewards.
The forest declaration calls for environmental management of timberlands, but it avoids standards for measuring such conservation and sets no deadline for compliance.
"Knowing that they depend on the South for resources slightly constrained the developed countries from pushing us into the corner," said Tian Wen Lian, a Malaysian diplomat. "This is a beginning."
With the biodiversity and global warming issues negotiated before the summit, virtually all of the actual discussions here centered on Agenda 21, a book-sized document intended to lay out a course of action on environment and development until 2000 and point the way toward the next century.
It recognizes throughout a link between environmental action and developmental progress through the concept of "sustainable development" and calls on rich countries to help poor countries take this road.