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World Summit Reaches Pact to Sustain Planet

Environment: Details of consensus plan fail to please many activists. But an assistant secretary of State describes it as 'a real breakthrough.'


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After days of nearly round-the-clock discussions, bleary-eyed negotiators at an international summit here reached agreement Monday night on a broad plan to bring clean water, sanitation and energy to the world's poor without further degrading the planet.

The hard-won consensus plan, which has decidedly weaker language than many delegates and environmentalists had hoped on increasing the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, is expected to be ratified today or Wednesday by more than 100 heads of state or government assembled at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Although the final draft of the plan was not expected to be released until today, its more than 70 pages contain dozens of initiatives that aim to do everything from removing trade barriers that burden the struggling economies of Third World nations to restoring the oceans' depleted fish stocks and reducing by half the 2 billion people who lack access to basic sanitation.

"We've made a real breakthrough with a plan of action,'' said John Turner, an assistant secretary of State who headed the U.S. team of negotiators. "We have moved forward on the fisheries issue, on land-based sources of pollution. We've made some real steps toward preserving biodiversity."

Margaret Beckett, head of the British delegation, called the deal "a victory for everybody who wants to put sustainable development at the heart of everything we do."

However, a number of environmental groups expressed disappointment at details emerging from the negotiations.

"We don't seem to be making progress. We seem to be backsliding," said Michael Strauss, a spokesman for a coalition of environmental and activist groups.

The real measure of success for the plan, which is strictly voluntary, will be actions taken in the years ahead.

The 10-day summit in Johannesburg was set up to implement environmental promises made a decade ago by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Although the Rio summit has been credited with sharpening the world's focus on environmental issues, few of those goals have been accomplished in the intervening years.

So the United Nations decided to bring world leaders here to forge an implementation plan that would set specific steps to follow toward Rio's twin aims of reducing poverty and preserving the environment.

The late-night breakthrough Monday came after a raucous day of debate and protest that included police dispersing pro-Palestinian demonstrators with a water cannon and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lashing out at critics of his program to seize white-owned farms.

In defending his land redistribution system, Mugabe said the issue has "pitted the black majority, who are the right holders and primary stakeholders to the land, against an obdurate and internationally well-connected racial minority, largely of British descent and brought in and sustained by British colonialism--now supported by the Blair government." British Prime Minister Tony Blair declined to comment.

Mugabe Assails U.N.

Addressing leaders from around the globe, Mugabe then took aim at the summit's host, the United Nations, calling it an "outdated" institution used to "dominate the world for the strategic national goals of the rich north," a reference to the industrialized Northern Hemisphere.

The battle between rich nations of the north and poor nations in the south has dominated the talks here on the environment and development. It surfaced again and again in the five-minute addresses made by a parade of national leaders who took the podium.

As often as not, speakers bashed the United States as the world's richest nation and biggest polluter, responsible for about 25% of emissions of globe-warming gases.

The Bush administration continued to take heat for pulling out of the 1997 international agreement signed in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change.

"Now is no longer the time for an 'every country for itself' attitude," scolded French President Jacques Chirac.

Saufatu Sopoanga, prime minister of Tuvalu, pleaded for the survival of his tiny South Pacific island nation, which is being washed away by rising sea levels and severe storms that scientists attribute to increasing global temperatures.

"We want our islands to exist forever and ever and not become submerged under water merely due to the selfishness and greed of the industrialized world," Sopoanga said.

He called for binding commitments to reducing emissions of fossil fuels.

But the new plan does little to advance the cause of reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels. The language falls short of what was sought by many nations to promote the Kyoto Protocol for curbing emissions, or even to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

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