US and Australia branded by greens as 'axis of evil'

Campaign groups at the Johannesburg Earth Summit have branded the United States, Canada and Australia an "axis of evil" for their reluctance to co-operate with the rest of the world in tackling global poverty and environmental degradation.

As Washington opposed the setting of any targets beyond previously agreed UN goals such as halving the proportion of the world's people who live on less than a dollar a day or lack access to drinking water, Tony Juniper, the vice-president of Friends of Earth International, said other governments must press ahead on new agreements "for people and the planet".

British officials acknowledged that scant progress had been made so far by officials negotiating behind the scenes of this week's open plenary sessions, which began yesterday. "It has been slow, but that is to be expected at a summit of this size," one official said.

But FoE accused Britain of promoting weak voluntary agreements rather than binding regulations on business.

Mr Juniper called on Tony Blair – who is not due to arrive in Johannesburg until next week – to seize the political initiative. "This summit desperately needs political leadership if it isn't going to fail. Tony Blair must fly out here soon and work with other leaders to get these talks back on track."

Mr Juniper said the US, Australia and Canada had high standards of living, high rates of material consumption, and high per-capita impact on the environment. "They have been most unconstructive in recognising their impact as rich consumer countries," he added.

The US had withdrawn from the Kyoto treaty on climate change, while Australia and Japan had shown little interest in it, Mr Juniper said. The US decision to increase steel tariffs and introduce agricultural subsidiesexemplified its lack of commitment to free trade and helping poor countries.

Officials in the British delegation said that Britain still believed that setting targets on specific issues would help in reviewing progress. Britain was happy, they said, that the summit was recognising the roleof private-sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in partnerships to deal with environmental issues.

Britain has established pilot projects with governments, NGOs and the private sector in South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda to implement projects to improve access to clean water. The officials urged other developed countries to set up similar partnerships.

Meanwhile, a combined platform of NGOs highlighted the environmental issues "unaddresed" since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

"After 10 years of some progress in negotiations, but little actual implementation, the impact of these unfulfilled promises are becoming clear," they said. Flooding throughout central Europe, China and south Asia had caused thousands of deaths and billions of dollars' damage. Globalisation had made the "rich richer and the poor poorer", and chemically-intensive agriculture and biotechnology had "resulted in looming starvation, social dislocation and a threat to the entire world's food supply".

The World Bank yesterday urged world leaders to give priority to agriculture and to address the issue of subsidies. Its vice-president, Ian Johnson, said that growth in Africa depended on developing agriculture, and that subsidies in the North were a major obstacle to achieving this.