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Hopes for any significant results from the World Summit for Sustainable Development, to take place in Johannesburg later this year, are currently running at a low ebb. Major political efforts are needed to salvage what could become a squandered opportunity.

At the end of August, a mixed crowd estimated at more than 80,000 people will descend on the South African city of Johannesburg to debate, protest and haggle about the state of the world. When initially planned, hopes were high that the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) might see the emergence of a renewed political determination to address problems of global poverty and environmental degradation. With less than five months to go, however, such hopes are dwindling rapidly. And the outcome of the most recent preparatory committee meeting (Prepcom III), which ended in New York last week, has only compounded this pessimism.

Beyond the conventional North/South tensions that tend to raise their head in such negotiations is the fact that, even at this late stage, there is a continued lack of basic consensus on main purpose of the meeting. To put it crudely, should it focus on protecting the environment, or on alleviating poverty?

Mixed messages

The easy answer, of course, is that it is intended to do both; embracing the two as priorities is exactly what 'sustainable development' is meant to be all about, ever since the concept was placed at the centre of international thinking about development by the Brundtland Report 'Our Common Future' of 1987.

At least in political terms, however, this is unrealistically simplistic. Those concerned primarily with environmental protection fear that their concerns will be marginalised in Johannesburg by the argument that economic growth remains the key to alleviating poverty; last week, for example, a group of non-governmental organisations put out a strongly worded statement about the dangers of letting trade negotiations undermine environmental agreements.

Conversely — as a current dispute in Nigeria over the high costs of ozone-friendly refrigerators and air conditioning units graphically illustrates (see 'Nigerians 'can't afford ozone-protecting fridges') — many developing countries fear that efforts to meet the social and economic needs of their populations are being threatened by requirements to observe strict environmental standards intended to solve problems that were not of their making.

So far, efforts to bridge the gap within the WSSD preparations have only met with limited success. In particular, efforts to produce a single negotiated text on an Action Plan, to be adopted in Johannesburg, are running into the sand as each country or groups of countries involved seeks to mould the text to its own priorities. A lack of guidance from conference officials during Prepcom III is widely perceived to have exacerbated the problem, as did the lack of sufficient resources — caused by financial difficulties within the United Nations itself — needed to ensure the smooth running of the negotiations.

Prospects for partnerships

At this late stage, much rests on the success of UN officials in drawing up their own text, to be presented in draft form at the next preparatory meeting to be held in Bali at the end of May. And as hopes dwindle that a diplomatic magician will appear to pull a rabbit out of what seems to be an empty hat, many participants are now focussing on what are described as 'Type 2' decisions.

These are initiatives that will not require broad political approval from all UN member states, but can be negotiated between ad hoc sets of partners, targeting specific objectives (international collaboration on renewable energy research, for example) and enlisting the support only of those who are keen on achieving them.

There is much to be said for this approach. In purely practical terms, partnership agreements are the level at which the various stakeholder groups involved in the preparations for WSSD are likely to make their most practical impact.

Opportunities for science

Such groups include the scientific community, which has been expressing in numerous ways a desire to become more directly involved in the whole sustainable development movement - but unclear where its efforts are likely to be most effective. Scientists could, for example, become involved in promoting and creating networks of centres of research excellence -- one idea discussed in the side-events of Prepcom III that would not necessarily require broad political endorsement to come into effect. Or in the preservation of marine resources.

But it would be dangerous if partnership agreements were to become a substitute for political action. Sustainable development is not a consensus-based, conflict-free domain, as indicated above; this is particularly true when addressing the different Northern and Southern perceptions of this process.

Addressing such conflicts successfully requires a high-level political commitment, and — as the recent history of the climate change treaty has underlined — such a commitment can only emerge from negotiations at a global level if they are going to have a lasting impact. Hence the importance of agreement on a strong political statement by world leaders in Johannesburg. And hence the nervousness that the time needed to secure this is rapidly running out.

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