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Ten days of haggling about the Earth’s future in Johannesburg, South Africa, have yielded an action plan and a political declaration, though both are less ambitious that they might have been.

The 192 governments represented and the more than 100 heads of state in attendance partially squandered a grand opportunity to showcase a new sense of solidarity and propel the world down the road to sustainability. Although a few new concrete targets were hashed out, the niggling over numerical targets and other petty debates tarnished the atmosphere and summit agreements.

Thirty years after the groundbreaking U.N. Conference on the Human Environment and a decade after the Rio Conference on Environment and Development, countries were to unite under the umbrella of sustainable development in Johannesburg. Sadly, the World Summit on Sustainable Development opened and closed under a cloud of pessimism, in stark contrast to the wave of optimism that participants rode out of the Rio Earth Summit a decade ago.

Overall the latest summit was a disappointing success. It succeeded by meeting the most meager qualifications for nations cobbling together and agreeing on an implementation plan and political declaration. It was disappointing because some important goals were left unrealized, and a sense of commitment was lacking.

Indeed, the mixed bag of results lends some justification to some skeptics’ stinging assessment that the millions of dollars spent to have the 40,000-plus participants convene and accomplish what they did could have been better spent helping the 1.1 billion people without access to adequate drinking water or the one-fifth of the world’s population that is estimated to live on less than one dollar a day.

Japan, along with the United States and oil-producing nations, helped to scuttle a plan to set numerical time-based targets to increase the use of renewable energy — this despite Japan’s domestic target of boosting renewable energy to 3 percent by 2010 (or 7 percent if hydropower is included). Likewise, a bold call to reverse the mass extinction we are imposing on flora and fauna was rolled back as leaders favored “significantly” slowing the pace at which biodiversity is disappearing.

Still, some progress was made. Governments set a numerical target on water and sanitation, agreeing that people lacking access to clean drinking water and sanitation should be halved by 2015. In addition, countries pledged to restore depleted fisheries by the same date, species extinction rates are to be slowed by 2010 and harmful chemicals are to be phased out by 2005. These numerical goals are a crucial yardstick for maintaining accountability and building momentum toward a more sustainable world.

Although participants failed to agree on a date for putting into effect the Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrialized countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Russia’s announced backing of the pact at the summit brightened prospects that it could possibly be brought into force within the year.

The United States was put on the hot seat as President George W. Bush elected not to attend, instead sending Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Powell in turn was jeered by summit participants who saw the U.S. as one of the major obstacles in the sustainability debate.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should be commended for making the trek and pledging 250 billion yen to boost education in poor countries.

The question in Johannesburg was whether countries could set aside private interests for the greater whole. To some extent, some did. Clearly there is no magic bullet for poverty and the myriad environmental scourges we face. We can only hope that the glacial pace national leaders have set is enough to forestall the potentially calamitous consequences of not addressing them. As before the summit, success depends on all of us helping those mired in poverty and on reducing the unsustainable rate of consumption of the Earth’s resources.

Although the summit goals are less ambitious than they might have been, they still require cooperation. Perhaps the biggest problem with Johannesburg remains that, even with the few agreed numerical targets, it is not clear how countries are to avoid the pitfall that undermined the Rio agreements a decade ago: namely, the failure to implement promises.

We can only echo the sentiments of South African President Thabo Mbeki: “The critical matter as to whether Johannesburg succeeded or not is what happens after this.” The future will be the final arbitrator of the outcome in Johannesburg, and it depends upon us.

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