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BALI — Already from the beginning there was an air of defeatism at the preparatory meeting in Bali for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. It was certainly not the ambience: The resort-style lodging for the 6,000 delegates could hardly have been a reason for complaint. But after two weeks of negotiations, the final outcome Friday lacked clear targets and timetables.

The “Bali Commitment” was supposed to be presented at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in late August, serving as a blueprint for developing the world without destroying it. It was meant to be a followup on “Agenda 21,” the first action plan on sustainable development, which resulted from the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro.

The gathering in Johannesburg is expected to be the largest U.N. conference ever. More than a hundred heads of state and 60,000 delegates are supposed to agree on ways to help millions of people out of poverty while protecting the Earth’s natural resources. Chances are, however, that “Earth Summit II,” as it is being dubbed, will result in a mere evaluation of 10 years of inaction since Rio.

All the right words could be heard in Bali. There was talk about poverty eradication, changing harmful patterns of consumption and production, protection of natural resources and ecosystems, and extra efforts for Africa and small island states. At the same time, demands for transparency, good governance and shared but differentiated responsibilities were repeated over and over again.

The phrases have become standard ingredients for so many declarations that the meaning has been lost. The EU commissioner for environment, Margot Wallstroem, seemed to recognize this effect. “I am afraid that the ultimate loss could be the loss of this whole concept of sustainable development,” she said at a news conference last week.

The lack of targets and timetables is all the more astonishing, as conditions have worsened over the last 10 years. Increasing poverty in developing nations and climbing levels of consumption in industrialized countries have increased the gap between them. Accelerating environmental degradation and climate destabilization have made the Earth and its capacity to sustain life more fragile.

“It’s the Americans again,” said one Asian negotiator walking out of a working group to catch some fresh air and cool his temper last week. Few would disagree with this sentiment. The United States clearly was the nation preventing firm and ambitious targets and deadlines in the Bali Commitment. Growing disappointment with the American position during the negotiations provoked some seasoned diplomats to lose their calm. “While the world has to march on its orders in the fight against terrorism, the U.S. government feels no need to join the struggle against the threat to life on Earth in general,” was the comment of one angry European delegate who requested anonymity. “All we hear from the Americans is that there should be more free trade, but it is they who recently decided to protect their steel industry, and it is this Bush administration that is shielding American farmers from free, fair and foreign competition.”

It is remarkable that the U.S. refuses to be held accountable for a problem that the White House recognizes. Take the issue of climate change. While negotiations were ongoing in Bali, the Bush administration quietly sent a report to the United Nations on the far-reaching effects of global warming on the American environment. Despite the fact that the U.S. government walked out of the Kyoto Protocol late last year, last week it admitted that human actions are mostly to blame for climate change, stating that the burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of the increase in greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Strangely, though, the government sees no reason to change its policy. Washington simply wants people to adapt to climate changes and ecological disruption. Tough luck for island states in the Pacific that will be drowned because the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases has decided to do nothing. This is in stark contrast to the European Union and Japan, both of which ratified the Kyoto Protocol in the past few weeks.

Japan’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is especially noteworthy, since it was part of the American-led coalition to water down the language in Bali. While the strength of the Kyoto Protocol lies precisely in its targets and timetables, Japan joined the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand in a group that focused on eliminating all targets and timetables in the Bali Commitment. Instead, they proposed voluntary actions.

In the meantime developing countries, with the backing of the European Union, spent most of their time and energy demanding more development assistance. But Bali was never meant to be a donors’ conference. Earlier this year, at a conference on financing development in Mexico, industrialized countries pledged to set aside $30 billion in aid by 2006 to combat poverty. Bali was to provide a plan to implement the commitments — in short, to decide how spend the money that is already available.

There is increasing frustration because of the ineffectiveness of mass gatherings like the preparatory meeting in Bali and the Earth Summit II. The sheer number of people, the linking of a broad range of already complex issues and the complicated rules and procedures applied within the United Nations make the process unworkable. In the end the system works in the advantage of those most reluctant to set new rules. Nongovernmental organizations are considering abandoning this process, and some countries are thinking of going ahead by organizing a “coalition of the willing” outside the U.N. They no longer want to be held hostage by the “coalition of the reluctant.” This would be less than ideal, but perhaps it would reap more benefits for the sustainability of Earth.

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