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Aside from its size, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg is a touchstone that indicates how serious the international community is about reconciling its needs with the world’s limited resources. It is billed as the largest United Nations gathering in history.

Nations are taking stock of new efforts to achieve sustainability following those articulated at the 1992 U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The rocky runup of summit preparatory meetings has cast a pall over the event, however, and if it ends in failure it could sap what little inertia remains from the Rio Earth Summit. At a time when optimism is ebbing, the need for a clear commitment to action is more salient than ever.

Rio’s numerous accomplishments — the adoption of climate-change and biodiversity treaties and Agenda 21, an action plan for sustainable development — boosted hope that governments and societies were about to turn the corner on sustainable development.

But progress has fallen short of initial expectations. On the plus side, sustainable development, generally defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising those of the future, has worked its way into the popular lexicon, if remaining uncomfortably ambiguous. Likewise, global-warming and biodiversity treaties forged in Rio have gained momentum. At the same time, civil society — especially in Japan — has matured.

Sadly, however, post-Rio failures stand out much more vividly than successes, and alarming statistics abound. Every year forested areas are shrinking by 2.5 percent, and tens of thousands of species of flora and fauna are disappearing. It is predicted that more than half of the world’s population will suffer water shortages by 2025. A mountain of social ills remain to be resolved as nearly a quarter of the world lives on less than a dollar a day.

Sustainability has foundered on the shoals of implementation. Domestically, while the nation’s 47 prefectures and 12 major cities have drawn up sustainability action plans based on Rio, only 184 of more than 3,000 municipalities have done so. Likewise, environmental concerns have not permeated many sectors of policymaking. Internationally, aid to developing countries continues to slide despite a pledge by industrialized countries to allot 0.7 percent of GNP. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow.

New elements have been thrown into the equation as well. Since Rio, the world has blindly moved down the path of globalization, and the schism between rich and poor is larger than ever. As a result, the alleviation of poverty and the rectification of unsustainable consumption patterns are central themes at Johannesburg.

Sadly, coverage of the summit is low key in Japan compared with a decade ago, perhaps because its topics do not resonate strongly with the public or media. Still, the summit’s success is crucial, and hinges on the adoption of two negotiated texts. One is an implementation plan including specific targets to put countries on the road to sustainability; the other is a disappointingly terse political declaration largely reconfirming past commitments. A novel concept of voluntary partnerships agreed among the private sector, civil society and governments or other entities is also being tested and could be promising.

But the crux of the issue is how much these three schemes will spur the world to action. This in turn will hinge upon the wrangling of the more than 100 heads of state scheduled to attend the summit early next week. Unfortunately, U.S. President George W. Bush will not be present. He has opted out, and his country’s intransigent position on many issues is hindering debate. The United States is refusing to budge on many numerical targets, including sanitation and energy, and opposes any mention of the Kyoto Protocol in the implementation text.

Japan, too, is dragging its feet on some issues. For instance, it also opposes setting a numerical target for renewable energy. But as a U.S. ally and with the second-largest economy, Japan is in a unique position to help bring the U.S. aboard on a number of contentious issues.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has reportedly instructed Japan’s delegation to see that the conference succeeds. This could mean decoupling Japan’s position from that of the U.S., such as by insisting that early entry into force of the Kyoto pact be clearly spelled out. Mr. Koizumi should not allow the interests of the few to stymie the needs of the many.

Before the conference concludes on Sept. 4, leaders and Cabinet-level delegates need to breathe new life into old promises and vow to make achievable, yet meaningful, new ones.

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