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Rio and Realism

WEEKS of controversy have tempered the idealism surrounding this week's United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development. The Earth Summit's goals will be proclaimed, but the world leaders gathered in Rio will hourly feel the friction between environmental protection and economic growth.

The run-up to the conference dampened hopes for visionary leaps toward curbing pollution and preserving resources. The United States, for one, sought agreements free of provisions that might hobble industry. It spurned the biodiversity treaty, largely because of concerns that the pact could retard developments in biological engineering.

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Washington's decisions were shaped by where its interests lay, according to mainstream economic perceptions. And the US was far from alone in this approach. Even the green-minded Europeans weren't able to arrive in Rio with their anti-global-warming showpiece in hand - an energy tax to sharply cut greenhouse emissions. The EC membership is split on this, with some countries - Spain, for example - as determined to protect their coal industry as the environment.

Japan was thought to be in line for a leadership role at Rio. It has done a lot to curb pollution on its ecologically fragile islands. But Japan also has its share of economic dilemmas right now. It will take a background role at Rio.

The multitude of developing countries represented at the summit have their own economic concerns. Their cooperation on environmental protection is linked to assurances of substantial financial and technological help from the industrial giants.

So what can one expect from Rio?

A global warming treaty will emerge, though in weakened form. It will nonetheless be a landmark. The process of creating a funding mechanism for assisting environmental protection in developing countries will commence. Nudged by a new initiative from the US, some progress may be made toward protecting the world's forests. Documents outlining the preservation of crucial resources into the next century will be signed.

Rio may not go as far as many wished, but it is a good start.

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