World: Leaders Won't Commit to Earth Summit

OTTAWA -- Protecting the planet for future generations just doesn't cut it any more, judging from the guest list for Earth Summit 2, the worldwide environmental pow-wow set for Johannesburg in August. The World Summit on Sustainable Development -- its official name -- is supposed to refocus international attention on the cause of sustainable development -- but it could be a summit in name only.

So far, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the only Western leader who has committed to attend Earth Summit 2. Prime Minister Jean Chretien has not announced a decision.

Most world leaders attended the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago this month. Canada was a star as former prime minister Brian Mulroney championed framework treaties to protect the climate and biodiversity.

Despite a series of arduous preparatory meetings for the Johannesburg summit, negotiators have been unable to agree even on an agenda.

"From the perspective of what the likely outcomes are, it's not likely we're going to get anything meaningful," Angela Rickman of the Sierra Club of Canada, said in an interview Thursday.

"Governments aren't willing to take stock of the progress or lack of progress they've made in the past 10 years. They've decided they don't want to make this an accountability session."

Fulfilling the pledges made at Rio has proved tougher than expected.

For example, the Framework Convention on Climate Change gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol, today the focus of a huge international battle whose outcome is unclear.

Mulroney was the first world leader to sign the Convention on Biodiversity, but it has taken until now for Ottawa to pass legislation that puts some teeth in his good intentions.

The UN General Assembly summed up the picture in a resolution two years ago:

"Despite the many successful and continuing efforts of the international community ... the environment and the natural resource base that support life on Earth continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate."

Still, some diehards dismiss the pessimistic predictions.

"The international process has been slower than what we would have liked but my sense is, with some effort, this could be a very significant event," said Harvey Lerer, executive director of the federal government's Canadian Earth Summit secretariat.

Canada's focus will be on the links between health and the environment and on strengthening the UN Environment Program, Lerer said.

The federal government will propose a new initiative on sustainable cities, basically bringing together communities around the world to learn about best practices, he said.

Ottawa also wants to launch a global dialogue on mining and sustainable development.

Lerer said he hopes Chretien and other leaders will decide to attend: "I think we will see commitments from world leaders accelerate as we get nearer and nearer to the meeting."

Whatever the leaders decide, Earth Summit 2 is likely to attract a big crowd: the South African government says it expects more than 50,000, many of them activists who will attend a parallel "people's summit."

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