The road after Rio

The preparations for the Earth Summit have been an unedifying spectacle. Much of it has been provided by the USA's overt refusal to renounce any part of its disproportionate claims on the planet's resources and pollutant assimilative capacity. And the leading role played in pressing the developing world's counter-claims by the Malaysian Government, with its appalling record on human rights, environmental protection and corruption alike, was a fitting if sorry counterbalance in the equation.

The wrangling will continue at Rio, but disappointingly little will be heard on other issues which are central to the sustainable development debate. Population control is one. And reading Agenda 21, one of the key documents before the summit, would suggest that no industrialist had ever polluted a stream and no banker financed the cutting down of a single tree. Indeed, the absence of any policies for tackling the role of financial institutions in promoting environmental destruction - far greater than any conceivable aid programme could correct - is a remarkable weakness of the whole affair.

But the summit will also bring significant advances. The new Convention on Climate Change is a more potent instrument for arresting emissions of greenhouse gases than most commentators have suggested, in part because it contains provisions for regular reporting and review of national programmes which have already worked to reasonably good effect in limiting damage to the ozone layer. And similar mechanisms are also to be created for monitoring the implementation of the global environmental action plan set out in Agenda 21.

The importance of those mechanisms is that they should, if they operate as planned, work from the bottom up. All sectors of society will be engaged in a co-operative effort to achieve sustainable development. The product should be national plans complete with budgets, targets and deadlines, and subject to regular review. That, at least, is the ideal.

The UK Government will face a major challenge in the follow-up to Rio. At home, it will have the summer to prepare a credible response in the second of its annual environmental reports, and there is no doubt that the institutional mechanisms created in the wake of the 1990 White Paper on the environment will need strengthening. And it will also have to take a leading role in co-ordinating the European Community's response during its Presidency of the Council of Ministers for the latter half of 1992. These will be its first tests in a new process which will require unremitting effort if the goal of sustainable development is ever to be achieved.

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