WILL the arrival of Presidents (not all!) and Prime Ministers at Johannesburg over this weekend save the Earth Summit from what some accounts have been describing as a “near–melt down”? There is a tendency for UN meetings of this kind to seem to be on the point of collapse, only for last minute all–night drafting sessions to produce a conclusion which, while not quite saving the day does enough to save the faces of the world leaders who set such store by its apparent success.

There have been some successes at Johannesburg already – the agreement on the world's first international ban on the use and production of toxic chemicals is a significant achievement that should see the disappearance of chemical products that are hazardous to human health or the environment by 2020. But there remains a hard core of important issues – as many as a dozen – on which agreement between the three main negotiating forces, European Union countries, Third World countries, and the United States, seems increasingly unlikely. A fourth negotiating element is the coalition of charities and other non–governmental organisations; they tend to speak their mind, regardless of diplomatic considerations, and they are saying that the Earth Summit is moving backwards, not forwards, and that it would be better to sign nothing than to be satisfied with face–saving compromises.