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Small Steps to Saving the Planet

In the basement of the United Nations, delegates from developed and developing nations work out agenda for June's environment summit

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IN several small, windowless rooms here in the United Nations basement, diplomats from around the world are trying to negotiate a set of common goals and practices to ensure the survival of the planet they share.

Their differences range from the seemingly insignificant comma to the broad North-South economic divide between developing countries that want extra help for the job ahead and developed countries that feel poorer than ever before.

Welcome to the last stop on what is sometimes called "the road to Rio." This is the fourth and final session of the UN preparatory committee which has been trying to craft a plan of action for all nations to sign in June at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.

If the past is a fair model, the biggest breakthroughs may well come at the end of this five-week session in early April. Yet some of the key topics, such as the transfer of money and technology, are up for discussion early on.

Some progress already has been made. The so-called G-77 group of developing countries (now grown to 128 nations) that works together on global issues drew up a list of the kind of environmentally safe technology it needs. Most of the technology is readily available and would not conflict with existing patent law and the industrialized nations agreed to the transfer.

Thus one chapter of the 900-page-long Agenda 21, a plan of action for the 21st century that covers everything from forests and oceans to poverty and population and one of the two major documents to be signed in Rio, has already been agreed upon.

Some small signs of compromise have developed on the question of financing Agenda 21. Though the United States took an early stance of no new funds, no targets and timetables, and no new institutions, the Bush administration agreed at the last session of global-warming talks in February to provide $75 million to help developing nations combat greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

While making no more dollar commitments to the current round of talks, the US now appears ready to agree to a general increase in development aid by donor countries.

Yet differences remain over how much is needed and how to channel it. The developing nations want a special "green fund" and a democratic funding mechanism in which they have an equal voice. Donors prefer mixing environment and development aid through existing institutions such as the pilot Global Environmental Facility.

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