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Worldwatch report finds Earth is in a sorry state

By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON – Five years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, treaties to protect the atmosphere and biodiversity are foundering, the world’s population is spiraling and more than 1 billion people cannot feed themselves, the Worldwatch Institute said yesterday.

In a downbeat assessment of the world’s troubled environment, social and political unrest and prospects for feeding itself, Worldwatch’s annual State of the World report listed as a series of problems that have worsened since the landmark world environment summit.

"Since Rio, human numbers have grown by 450 million; vast areas of forest have been stripped of trees and emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, the leading greenhouse gas, have climbed to all-time highs, altering the very composition of the atmosphere," the report by the Washington-based think tank said.

Two of the key initiatives from Rio – treaties to cut fossil fuel emissions that are warming the atmosphere and to protect biodiversity – have stumbled on a lack of commitment from major nations, the report said.

In particular, it said the United States' environmental leadership has receded in the last five years as it has missed targets set in the climate convention by wide margins and failed to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The United States is among eight countries with 56 percent of the world's population and 53 percent of its forests that "have the RIO agenda — and the fate of the earth — in their hands," the report said.

Eileen Claussen, assistant secretary of state overseeing environmental affairs, said Worldwatch’s assessment of progress is "generally correct." She noted Congress failed to ratify a biodiversity treaty and slashed funding for the summit’s major initiatives.

But she insisted Clinton administration leadership remains steadfast, listing campaigns for binding provisions in a world-climate agreement for the phaseout of dangerous chemicals and for a worldwide battle against marine pollution.

Other "environmental heavyweights" are Germany, Japan, Russia, China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, the report noted, countries that Worldwatch said should play a bigger role in bridging differences between industrialized nations of the Northern Hemisphere and developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere.

China, India and other developing countries increasingly hold the key to reversing the environmental slide, and their burgeoning use of resources may force developed countries to face up to their own unsustainable economies, the report said.

"Too many
governments still
pursue economic
growth at any price."


The report also faulted international institutions, and rich countries’ flagging commitments to them, for failing to confront environmental threats.

For example, it said government funding of the United Nations Development Program and the U.N. Environment Program has been inadequate.

The World Bank, which leads some $20 billion annually to developing nations, has claimed to have expanded its environmental leading since Rio. But the report said, "It continues to lend large sums for development schemes that add to carbon emissions and destroy natural ecosystems – while the broader vision of a sustainable economy is neglected."

The State of the World report - the 14th in the usually grim series - cited some improvements, including the Montreal Protocol to phase out use of ozone-depleting chemicals and slower-than-expected population growth.

But it said, "Too many government still pursue economic growth at any price ignoring the fact that damage to global commons such as the atmosphere and the oceans could severely disrupt the world’s economies."

"Until finance ministers - and more importantly prime ministers - take these problems as seriously as environmental officials do, nations will continue to undermine the natural resource base and ecosystems on which they depend," it said.

The report did find some hope in the increasing numbers of grassroots groups, particularly in Bangladesh and India. Also, more than 1,500 cities in 51 countries have adopted local plans and rules, often more stringent than their national governments proposed at Rio, the report said.

Presaging Worldwatch’s tally of slippage, Earth Summit Secretary General Maurice Strong issued a report last week citing pockets of progress but concluding "far too few countries, companies, institutions; communities and citizens have made the choices and changes needed to advance the goals of sustainable development."

Strong, now head of the Earth Council, a nongovernment group set up in Costa Rica after the summit, said more than 100 nations are worse off today than 15 years ago, with 1.3 billion people earning less than $1 a day.

Christopher Flavin, a lead author of the Worldwatch report, called the Earth Summit a "last hurrah" for the idea that sweeping government programs can cure a sick planet.

"The answer is more likely to die in an eclectic mix of international agreements, sensible government policies, efficient use of private resources and bold initiatives by grassroots organizations," Flavin said.

But, the report said Rio "energized the efforts of private citizens to promote environmentally sustainable development," and encouraged nongovernment organizations around the world to "provide ideas as well as pressure for change."

[ED note: Emphasis added]