- Associated Press - Monday, May 21, 2012

RIO DE JANEIRO — The largest-ever U.N. conference, a summit billed as a historic opportunity to build a greener future, appears to be going up in smoke.

President Obama likely won’t be there, and the leaders of Britain and Germany have bowed out. The entire European Parliament delegation has canceled.

And with fewer than five weeks to go until the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, negotiations to produce a final statement have stalled amid squabbling. Logistical snags, too, threaten to derail the event.

Though the conference’s host city, Rio de Janeiro, also is slated to stage mega-events in the 2014 World Cup final match and the 2016 Olympics, its hotel infrastructure is still woefully lacking.

With a total of 33,000 beds for the estimated 50,000-plus visitors expected to flood the city for the June 20-22 summit, the mayor has resorted to asking residents to leave town and rent out their apartments to delegates.

Critics contend such stopgap measures will prove too little, too late.

The conference is the follow-up to the U.N.’s 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio, which helped put climate change on the world agenda.

Twenty years later, climate change remains such a divisive subject that the anniversary conference will focus instead on the more palatable topic of sustainable development: economic growth that meets humans’ present needs without devouring resources to derail the future.

But even that has proven a hard sell.

An absence of leaders

Talks to hammer out the lion’s share of the conference’s outcome document have failed. The U.N. announced May 5 that a last-ditch round of negotiations has been scheduled after two previous ones yielded a rambling, repetitive text.

A U.N. statement quoted Rio+20 Secretary-General Sha Zukung criticizing the text as “a far cry from the ‘focused political document’ ” called for.

Sticking points include fears among developing countries that the conference’s environmentalist economic approach could stymie their economic development. Other countries have “voiced concern over accountability and implementation of the commitments made,” the U.N. statement said.

“This meeting should be delivering transformational change,” said Daniel Mittler, a political director at Greenpeace who is heading the environmental group’s 11-strong delegation at Rio+20. “What is on the table is business as usual - completely inadequate goals and a total lack of urgency.”

The likely absence of top-tier leaders suggests that many governments already have written off the conference.

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