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Long on Promises, but Short on Specifics

Summit: Delegates leave South Africa with a wide range of policy goals and new partners. Nothing, however, is binding on the participants.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Delegates headed home from an international summit Thursday clutching a 65-page plan that vows to attack nearly every ill on Earth.

But the 10-day global gathering here, once hailed as a broad effort to help preserve the planet, ended as a success more for its promises than for its achievements, participants say.

"Oh boy, is it ambitious!" said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "If this were actually carried out, it would be very good for the world. But there is no, absolutely no evidence of a real strategy to accomplish these goals."

Although public expectations of action are high, a fundamental problem exists: The plan--which covers everything from rebuilding fisheries, forests and protecting the diversity of species to bringing water, energy and medicine to the poor--is nonbinding.

To avoid continuing stagnation, the U.N. nudged participants at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to form partnerships and pick a project, large or small, that will begin to chip away at environmental or development problems.

Annan's burgeoning "era of partnerships," as he calls it, flourished during the conference. Hundreds of governments, private groups, businesses and foundations lined up to announce "partnerships"--sometimes with old partners or even old adversaries.

Environmental activists from Greenpeace and representatives of British Petroleum, who once battled over an oil platform in the North Atlantic, joined hands to push for binding government commitments to stem global warming. Israel and Jordan pledged to work together to breathe life into the Dead Sea, which is ebbing from a shortage of water.

A foundation of Shell Oil teamed up with the World Resources Institute to curb vehicles with the dirtiest exhaust in the world's biggest cities. "It caught our attention when Shell was giving us money to drive off customers that use their product," said Jonathan Lash, the institute's president.

The United States rolled out a series of partnerships to protect Congo's rain forest, to battle AIDS, and to bring clean water and cleaner energy to impoverished and isolated regions of the world.

Bush administration officials have been vague about financial commitments to these projects and, in turn, been criticized by environmental groups that accuse the U.S. of reshuffling dollars and programs to look like something new.

"The Bush administration has given these partnerships a bad name," said Jacob Scherr, director of international programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a shame, because these partnerships are exciting. So many other countries have been inspired by this meeting to participate with concrete actions that can make a difference."

International environmental and relief organizations piled on the complaints about the Bush administration, both about its proposed partnerships and the U.S. delegation's successful efforts to weaken language in the summit's implementation plan.

All of this culminated in the jeering of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during a speech Wednesday as he stood in for President Bush, who declined to attend the summit that drew more than 100 heads of state and government.

"U.S. Wrecks Earth Summit," read a flier handed out by the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Earth. It criticized the administration's resistance to provisions in the plan to hold corporations more accountable for environmental consequences and the U.S. delegation's successful efforts to scuttle a European proposal to increase the world's reliance on nonpolluting solar and wind energy to 15% of power needs by 2010.

The plan now only urges a "substantial increase" in renewable energy--a goal that cannot be measured. "Throughout this summit, the U.S. administration has betrayed our environment and the needs of the poor and the vulnerable," said Ricardo Navarro, chairman of Friends of the Earth. "That's why we were protesting during Colin Powell's shameless and inadequate speech."

Sachs, the Columbia professor, noted that other administration officials have been booed at AIDS conferences and other international gatherings. "The fact that Colin got jeered shows that the U.S. government doesn't understand these issues, and doesn't understand that the rest of the world cares passionately about them," he said.

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