Facebook Twitter



A year ago, the streets of Rio de Janeiro hummed, not with the music of Brazil's annual carnival, but with the boisterous voices of environmentalists from around the world and the fanfare for the largest gathering of world leaders in history.

The occasion was the United Nations Earth Summit. For two weeks last June, Rio was the unofficial environmental capital of the world. Diplomats caucused in all-night sessions at Rio's cavernous convention center, while activists encamped in brightly colored tents along Flamengo Beach, in the shadow of Sugar Loaf.The summit was marked by bitter discord over the role of the United States, which was criticized by activists and by its allies for its efforts to block or weaken the Earth Summit's two key treaties.

The memory of the disputes has now faded, and the diplomatic limousines that clogged the streets of Copacabana and Ipanema are gone. But the summit's legacy survives, and it is slowly beginning to reshape international affairs, participants say.

On June 14, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development - created to carry out the summit's goals - will hold its first meeting in New York.

"It's starting to happen," said Scott Hajost, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. But, he said, "it's going to be a good while before you can actually stand back and say, OK, what have you accomplished? I think we're still in the building process here."

The summit's treaties - one designed to forestall the greenhouse effect, and another to protect the world's biological diversity, its disappearing plant and animal species - are moving close to ratification by enough nations to bring the treaties into force.

On Earth Day in April, President Clinton reversed the Bush administration positions on the treaties. The biological diversity treaty, Clinton said, "is critically important . . . not only because of what it will do to preserve species, but because of opportunities it offers for cutting-edge companies whose research creates new medicines, new products and new jobs."

Saying that the United States "walked away from the treaty" in Rio, Clinton announced that the United States would sign it. On the threat of global warming, Clinton committed the United States "to reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000."

President Bush had refused to make those commitments, breaking with Japan and the Europeans, who signed the biodiversity treaty and pledged greenhouse gas reductions. The United States was also the only major nation to refuse to sign the biological diversity treaty.

But the treaties are only part of what was accomplished in Rio, environmentalists say.

"The connection between international security, environmental security and human welfare broadly was made at the Earth Summit, and that thinking will influence decisions for decades to come," said Michael Oppenheimer, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in New York.

The treaties "don't solve the problems they were intended to solve, but they are important first steps," said Oppenheimer, an expert on global warming.

William K. Reilly, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the head of the U.S. delegation in Rio, said that the Bush administration came very close to signing the bio-di-ver-si-ty treaty at the summit.

"We had a substantive position on biological diversity," Reilly said in a recent interview. "I thought there were many ways out of it, but the truth was (the White House) didn't want a way out of it."

During the first few days of the summit, Reilly struggled behind the scenes to try to eliminate the obstacles in the way of U.S. support for the treaty. But he was stopped when a White House official leaked a memo revealing Reilly's plans.

Later, Brent Scowcroft, then the president's national security adviser, told Reilly, "We could have done what you wanted, but for the leak. We could have fixed this."

Bush's opposition to the biodiversity treaty became one of the top stories of the summit, and the word "biodiversity" appeared on front pages around the world.

When Reilly found himself in a limousine with the president in Rio, Reilly said, jokingly, "Well, Mr. President . . . I think you can fairly say with a smile that no one's done more for public understanding of that concept than you, sir." The president laughed; but his position didn't change.

One of the key unanswered questions following the summit is whether the developed nations will make substantial financial contributions toward cleaning up the environment in developing countries, which have few resources of their own.

Europe, Japan and the United States pledged hundreds of millions of dollars toward that end at the Rio summit, but little of the money has been spent.

"How much money there is and where it's gone is still very much a subject of debate," said Hajost.

One of the key aims of the Earth Summit was to bring environmental concerns into all areas of international affairs, from national security to foreign aid. The record there is mixed, said Hajost.

Governments and the United Nations are slowly beginning to include environmental concerns in their planning, he said, but one key agency - the World Bank - has not.

The bank, the major donor of foreign aid to developing nations, has said it would support projects that are economically sustainable - that is, they don't deplete resources or produce unmanageable quantities of waste or toxic emissions.

Whether it's following those policies is another question, Hajost said. "Every conclusion is that the World Bank, despite nice policies in some cases, is not spending its portfolio in ways that are truly environmentally sustainable," he said.

The Clinton administration has expressed concern about this problem and is likely to use its influence to try to change the World Bank, Hajost said.