Environmental Ministers to Meet at U.N.


By PAUL LEWIS

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company


As the fifth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit meeting approaches, environmental ministers from 53 countries plan to open talks at the U.N. Tuesday on setting new targets in fields ranging from conserving fresh water supplies to limiting chemical pollution.

Their aim, at this session of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, is to reach enough agreement over the next three weeks to allow world leaders to endorse their decisions formally at a special session of the General Assembly in June. The session is to review what progress the world has made toward meeting the environmental goals set at Rio de Janeiro.

Essentially, officials will be trying to fill in some of the gaps left in the emerging set of international environmental laws after the Rio Summit meeting, at which countries adopted new international conventions on combating climate change, protecting the world's wildlife and plants (an agreement the United States refused to sign) and resisting the spread of deserts.

But while prospects seem good for new agreements on protecting fresh water and controlling the worst chemical pollutants, it remains unclear whether governments will take practical action on cleaning up the world's oceans, curbing overfishing and protecting forests.

In February representatives of more than 70 countries concluded two years of talks still divided over whether to start negotiations on a legally binding agreement to curb over-logging and promote sustainable forestry. And the goal governments set at Rio to reduce the "greenhouse gas" emissions thought to be behind global warming to 1990 levels by the year 2000 is now widely accepted as unrealistic.

Many environmental organizations are disappointed with developments since Rio and do not conceal their skepticism about the future.

"This year's session of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the U.N. General Assembly's Special Session -- Earth Summit 2 -- must be seen as a real wake-up call," said the environmental organization Greenpeace in a message to all U.N. missions. "Their result must include a clear strong message that 'business as usual,' which created most of our problems, is no longer acceptable."

Barbara J. Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation said that "even if we got new international agreements on oceans, fresh water and toxic chemicals, they wouldn't be sufficient to stem the degradation."

"Among New York diplomats," she said, "the sense of urgency from the Earth Summit is gone."

Prospects look best, U.N. officials and environmentalists say, for a new agreement addressing the serious shortage of fresh water in many regions, which was highlighted by a major U.N. study earlier this year.

The General Assembly session in June is likely to give a green light to a new plan to protect the world's fresh water resources and to promote cooperation between countries drawing their supplies from the more than 800 rivers crossing national borders.

Agreement also appears close on new controls on chemical pollution. A protocol is almost ready on insuring that such chemicals are not exported without the consent of an importing country. And governments are already committed to start talks at the end of the year on restricting the use of 12 toxic chemicals.

But concrete action on cleaning up the oceans, and protecting fish stocks and forests are less likely, officials say.

At an informal meeting in Germany last month, environmental ministers from 19 industrial and Third-World countries said the world's oceans were "in acute danger." They said that they were "being used as waste dumps" and that "overfishing has assumed alarming proportions."

But the preparatory document for this week's talks says the world already has enough agreements on curbing pollution. What is needed, it said, is better enforcement of existing laws.

As for overfishing, the document merely invites ministers to "consider the establishment of measurable objectives, including the phasing out of subsidies, where appropriate, to eliminate or reduce excess fishing fleet capacity."

The 15 European Union countries, Canada and several third-world countries including Malaysia and Indonesia still favor adopting a new legally binding convention protecting the world's forests. But the United States, Brazil and some other third-world nations remain opposed.

Moreover many private environmental organizations are also against negotiating a forest convention at the moment because they fear that with governments doing so little to preserve their forests, any agreement they made would be little better than "a loggers charter."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company





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