JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - After days of nearly round-the-clock discussions, bleary-eyed negotiators at an international summit here reached agreement last night on a broad plan to bring clean water, sanitation and energy to the world's poor without further degrading the planet.
The hard-won consensus plan, which has decidedly weaker language than many delegates and environmentalists had hoped on increasing the use of renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, is expected to be ratified today or tomorrow by more than 100 heads of state or government assembled here at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
The more than 70-page plan contains dozens of initiatives that aim to do everything from removing trade barriers that burden the struggling economies of Third World nations to restoring the oceans' depleted fishery stocks and reducing by half the 2 billion people who lack access to basic sanitation.
"We've made a real breakthrough with a plan of action," said John Turner, an assistant secretary of state who headed the U.S. team of negotiators. "We have moved forward on the fisheries issue, on land-based sources of pollution. We've made some real steps toward preserving biodiversity."
Margaret Beckett, head of the British delegation, called the deal "a victory for everybody who wants to put sustainable development at the heart of everything we do."
However, a number of environmental groups expressed disappointment with details emerging from the negotiations.
"We don't seem to be making progress. We seem to be backsliding," said Michael Strauss, a spokesman for a coalition of environmental and activist groups.
The real measure of success or failure for the plan, which is strictly voluntary, will be actions taken in the years ahead. The 10-day summit in Johannesburg was set up to implement environmental promises made a decade ago by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although the Rio summit has been credited for sharpening the world's focus on environmental issues, few of the goals have been accomplished in the intervening years.
So the United Nations decided to bring world leaders here to forge an implementation plan that would set specific steps to follow toward Rio's twin pursuits of reducing poverty and preserving the environment.
The late-night breakthrough yesterday came after a raucous day of debate and protest that included police dispersing pro-Palestinian demonstrators with a water cannon and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lashing out at critics of his program to seize white-owned farms.
In defending his land redistribution system, Mugabe said the issue has "pitted the black majority, who are the right holders and primary stakeholders to the land, against an obdurate and internationally well-connected racial minority, largely of British descent ... now supported by the [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair government." Blair declined to comment.
As often as not, speakers bashed the United States as the world's richest nation and biggest polluter, responsible for about 25 percent of the world's emissions of globe-warming gases. The Bush administration continued to take heat for pulling out of the 1997 international agreement signed in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change.
"Now is no longer the time for an `every country for itself' attitude," scolded French President Jacques Chirac.
Saufatu Sopoanga, prime minister of Tuvalu, pleaded for the survival of his tiny South Pacific Island nation, which is being washed away by a rising sea level and severe storms that scientists attribute to increasing global temperatures. "We want our islands to exist forever and ever and not become submerged under water merely due to the selfishness and greed of the industrialized world," Sopoanga said. He called for binding commitments to reducing emissions of fossil fuels.
But the plan adopted late yesterday does little to advance the cause of reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels. The language itself falls short of what was sought by many nations to promote the Kyoto Protocol for curbing emissions, or even to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels.
One of the final sticking points, which was resolved yesterday, was the fight over establishing specific goals and timetables to increase the world's reliance on alternative energy - such as solar, wind or small hydroelectric plants.
The European Union was pushing for a worldwide pledge that 15 percent of all energy would be from these renewable sources by the year 2015. The United States and some oil-producing countries opposed specific percentages or timetables. The American delegation was worried about what this might cost the United States, which now gets only 11 percent of its energy from renewable sources - and most of that from large hydroelectric plants that some critics consider not "green" enough to qualify.
In the end, the United States and oil-producing allies seemed to wear down their opponents. The compromise language in the plan does not set any specific target for increasing use of renewable energy. Instead it says that nations, "with a sense of urgency," should substantially increase the global share of renewable energy.
Kenneth R. Weiss is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.