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Rio summit launches two 'Earth' treaties.

Negotiating teams representing 178 nations this week wrapped up 12 days of complex deliberations at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). This Earth summit brought heads of state from 116 nations to Rio de Janeiro for discussion of--and hopefully commitment to -- "integrated strategies to prevent further degradation of the global environment."

While UNCED's organizers had hoped the agreements forged through their diplomatic labors would contain more legal bite, most concede that the documents emerging from this meeting represent important achievements. Indeed, three may eventually result in treaties.

Chief among them was the Convention on Climate Change. Aimed at limiting the threat of global warming, it requires no binding limits on greenhouse gases -- just a commitment to policies for controlling emissions and enhancing absorption of the pollutants (SN: 5/16/92, p. 326).

At press time, at least 150 nations had signed this convention, signaling their leaders' support. To enter into force, such proposed treaties require subsequent legislative ratification--in this case, by 50 countries.

A similar number of countries signed the Biological Diversity Convention. Once ratified by 30 of them, this treaty will bind signatories to protecting genetic resources harbored within indigenous plants and animals. For instance, it calls for cataloging species and supporting activities that foster survival of threatened ones. Wealthier nations would help finance such efforts in poorer ones.

The convention also argues that nations should be allowed to share in the technology or some unspecified "fair" share of profits -- or both -- that others derive from exploiting their species. While industrial nations have questioned how such provisions might ultimately be interpreted, only the United States pronounced them grounds for rejecting the convention.

Predicting that U.S. "effort to protect biodiversity itself will exceed the requirements of the treaty," President Bush refused to sign the document. He argued at Rio that its provisions "threaten to retard biotechnology and undermine the protection of [patentable] ideas. And unlike the climate agreement," he added, "its financing scheme will not work."

Among other developments emerging from the Rio meeting:

* A nonbinding "statement of principle" outlining the need for preserving forests. The document, which many officials described as the first step toward a potential treaty, sets no timetables or standards for assessing compliance.

* A comprehensive environmental action plan. Known as Agenda 21, its roughly 800 pages call for integrated activities to reduce waste, improve energy efficiency and promote sustainable economic development. It also sets guidelines for who will finance such changes and how.

"Rio was clearly a great success," concluded UNCED organizer Maurice F. Strong of Canada. However, he warned at the meeting's close, "whether [UNCED] succeeds in its purpose of setting the planet on a new tract remains to be seen.... People can't allow their leaders to forget what they promised here."
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Title Annotation:United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jun 20, 1992
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