Saving the Earth: the Challenges We Face

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If that's the message environmental groups and industry want to get out, they appear to be doing a good job of it. Increasingly, local folks act whether world political bodies do or not. California Governor Gray Davis signed a law last month requiring automakers to cut their cars' carbon emissions by 2009. Many countries are similarly proactive. Chile is encouraging sustainable use of water and electricity; Japan is dangling financial incentives before consumers who buy environmentally sound cars; and tiny Mauritius is promoting solar cells and discouraging use of plastics and other disposables.

Business is getting right with the environment too. The Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, based in Washington, is working with auto and oil giants including Ford, Chevron, Texaco and Shell to draft guidelines for incorporating biodiversity conservation into oil and gas exploration. And the center has helped Starbucks develop purchasing guidelines that reward coffee growers whose methods have the least impact on the environment. Says Nitin Desai, secretary-general of the Johannesburg summit: "We're hoping that partnerships--involving governments, corporations, philanthropies and NGOs--will increase the credibility of the commitment to sustainable development."

Will that happen? In 1992 the big, global measures of the Rio summit seemed like the answer to what ails the world. In 2002 that illness is--in many respects--worse. But if Rio's goal was to stamp out the disease of environmental degradation, Johannesburg's appears to be subtler--and perhaps better: treating the patient a bit at a time, until the planet as a whole at last gets well.

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