United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

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United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)

Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992

Informal name: The Earth Summit

The Earth Summit

The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was unprecedented for a UN conference, in terms of both its size and the scope of its concerns. Twenty years after the first global environment conference, the UN sought to help Governments rethink economic development and find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life were drawn into the Rio process. They persuaded their leaders to go to Rio and join other nations in making the difficult decisions needed to ensure a healthy planet for generations to come.

The Summit’s message — that nothing less than a transformation of our attitudes and behaviour would bring about the necessary changes — was transmitted by almost 10,000 on-site journalists and heard by millions around the world. The message reflected the complexity of the problems facing us: that poverty as well as excessive consumption by affluent populations place damaging stress on the environment. Governments recognized the need to redirect international and national plans and policies to ensure that all economic decisions fully took into account any environmental impact. And the message has produced results, making eco-efficiency a guiding principle for business and governments alike.

  • Patterns of production — particularly the production of toxic components, such as lead in gasoline, or poisonous waste — are being scrutinized in a systematic manner by the UN and Governments alike;
  • Alternative sources of energy are being sought to replace the use of fossil fuels which are linked to global climate change;
  • New reliance on public transportation systems is being emphasized in order to reduce vehicle emissions, congestion in cities and the health problems caused by polluted air and smog;
  • There is much greater awareness of and concern over the growing scarcity of water.


The two-week Earth Summit was the climax of a process, begun in December 1989, of planning, education and negotiations among all Member States of the United Nations, leading to the adoption of Agenda 21, a wide-ranging blueprint for action to achieve sustainable development worldwide. At its close, Maurice Strong, the Conference Secretary-General, called the Summit a “historic moment for humanity”. Although Agenda 21 had been weakened by compromise and negotiation, he said, it was still the most comprehensive and, if implemented, effective programme of action ever sanctioned by the international community. Today, efforts to ensure its proper implementation continue, and they will be reviewed by the UN General Assembly at a special session to be held in June 1997.

The Earth Summit influenced all subsequent UN conferences, which have examined the relationship between human rights, population, social development, women and human settlements — and the need for environmentally sustainable development. The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, for example, underscored the right of people to a healthy environment and the right to development, controversial demands that had met with resistance from some Member States until Rio.

Background

The relationship between economic development and environmental degradation was first placed on the international agenda in 1972, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. After the Conference, Governments set up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which today continues to act as a global catalyst for action to protect the environment. Little, however, was done in the succeeding years to integrate environmental concerns into national economic planning and decision-making. Overall, the environment continued to deteriorate, and such problems as ozone depletion, global warming and water pollution grew more serious, while the destruction of natural resources accelerated at an alarming rate.

By 1983, when the UN set up the World Commission on Environment and Development, environmental degradation, which had been seen as a side effect of industrial wealth with only a limited impact, was understood to be a matter of survival for developing nations. Led by Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the Commission put forward the concept of sustainable development as an alternative approach to one simply based on economic growth — one “which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

After considering the 1987 Brundtland report, the UN General Assembly called for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The primary goals of the Summit were to come to an understanding of “development” that would support socio-economic development and prevent the continued deterioration of the environment, and to lay a foundation for a global partnership between the developing and the more industrialized countries, based on mutual needs and common interests, that would ensure a healthy future for the planet.

The Earth Summit Agreements

In Rio, Governments — 108 represented by heads of State or Government — adopted three major agreements aimed at changing the traditional approach to development:

  • Agenda 21 — a comprehensive programme of action for global action in all areas of sustainable development;
  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development — a series of principles defining the rights and responsibilities of States;
  • The Statement of Forest Principles — a set of principles to underlie the sustainable management of forests worldwide.


In addition, two legally binding Conventions aimed at preventing global climate change and the eradication of the diversity of biological species were opened for signature at the Summit, giving high profile to these efforts:

  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity


Agenda 21 addresses today’s pressing problems and aims to prepare the world for the challenges of the next century. It contains detailed proposals for action in social and economic areas (such as combating poverty, changing patterns of production and consumption and addressing demographic dynamics), and for conserving and managing the natural resources that are the basis for life — protecting the atmosphere, oceans and biodiversity; preventing deforestation; and promoting sustainable agriculture, for example.

Governments agreed that the integration of environment and development concerns will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved standards for all, better protected and better managed ecosystems and a safer and a more prosperous future. “No nation can achieve this on its own. Together we can — in a global partnership for sustainable development”, states the preamble.

The programme of action also recommends ways to strengthen the part played by major groups — women, trade unions, farmers, children and young people, indigenous peoples, the scientific community, local authorities, business, industry and non- governmental organizations (NGOs) — in achieving sustainable development.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Developmentsupports Agenda 21 by defining the rights and responsibilities of States regarding these issues. Among its principles:

  • That human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature;
  • That scientific uncertainty should not delay measures to prevent environmental degradation where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage;
  • That States have a sovereign right to exploit their own resources but not to cause damage to the environment of other States;
  • That eradicating poverty and reducing disparities in worldwide standards of living are “indispensable” for sustainable development;
  • That the full participation of women is essential for achieving sustainable development; and
  • That the developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.


The Statement of Forest Principles, the non–legally binding statement of principles for the sustainable management of forests, was the first global consensus reached on forests. Among its provisions:

  • That all countries, notably developed countries, should make an effort to “green the world” through reforestation and forest conservation;
  • That States have a right to develop forests according to their socio-economic needs, in keeping with national sustainable development policies; and
  • That specific financial resources should be provided to develop programmes that encourage economic and social substitution policies.


At the Summit, the UN was also called on to negotiate an international legal agreement on desertification, to hold talks on preventing the depletion of certain fish stocks, to devise a programme of action for the sustainable development of small island developing States and to establish mechanisms for ensuring the implementation of the Rio accords.

UN Follow-Up

The Earth Summit succeeded in presenting new perspectives on economic progress. It was lauded as the beginning of a new era and its success would be measured by the implementation — locally, nationally and internationally — of its agreements. Those attending the Summit understood that making the necessary changes would not be easy: it would be a multi-phased process; it would take place at different rates in different parts of the world; and it would require the expenditure of funds now in order to prevent much larger financial and environmental costs in the future.

In Rio, the UN was given a key role in the implementation of Agenda 21. Since then, the Organization has taken steps to integrate concepts of sustainable development into all relevant policies and programmes. Income-generating projects increasingly take into account environmental consequences. Development assistance programmes are increasingly directed towards women, given their central roles as producers and as caretakers of families. Efforts to manage forests in a sustainable manner begin with finding alternatives to meet the needs of people who are overusing them. The moral and social imperatives for alleviating poverty are given additional urgency by the recognition that poor people can cause damage to the environment. And foreign investment decisions increasingly take into account the fact that drawing down the earth’s natural resources for short-term profit is bad for business in the long run.

In adopting Agenda 21, the Earth Summit also requested the United Nations to initiate talks aimed at halting the rapid depletion of certain fish stocks and preventing conflict over fishing on the high seas. After negotiations spanning more than two years, the UN Agreement on High Seas Fishing was opened for signature on 4 December 1995. It provides for all species of straddling and highly migratory fish — those which swim between national economic zones or migrate across broad areas of the ocean — to be subject to quotas designed to ensure the continued survival of fish for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Also at the Summit, Governments requested the UN to hold negotiations for an international legal agreement to prevent the degradation of drylands. The resulting International Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa, was opened for signing in October 1994 and entered into force in December 1996. It calls for urgent action to be taken in Africa, where some 66 per cent of the continent is desert or drylands and 73 per cent of agricultural drylands are already degraded.

In order to promote the well-being of people living in island countries, the Summit called for the UN to convene a Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States . The Conference was held in Barbados in May 1994 and produced a programme of action designed to assist these environmentally and economically vulnerable countries.

In addition, three bodies were created within the United Nations to ensure full support for implementation of Agenda 21 worldwide:

  • The UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which first met in June 1993;
  • The Inter-agency Committee on Sustainable Development, set up by the Secretary-General in 1992 to ensure effective system-wide cooperation and coordination in the follow-up to the Summit; and
  • The High-level Advisory Board on Sustainable Development, established in 1993 to advise the Secretary-General and the Commission on issues relating to the implementation of Agenda 21.

UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) — The Earth Summit called on the General Assembly to establish the Commission under the Economic and Social Council as a means of supporting and encouraging action by Governments, business, industry and other non-governmental groups to bring about the social and economic changes needed for sustainable development. Each year, the Commission reviews implementation of the Earth Summit agreements, provides policy guidance to Governments and major groups involved in sustainable development and strengthens Agenda 21 by devising additional strategies where necessary. It also promotes dialogue and builds partnerships between Governments and the major groups which are seen as key to achieving sustainable development worldwide. The work of the Commission was supported by numerous inter-sessional meetings and activities initiated by Governments, international organizations and major groups. In June 1997, the General Assembly will hold a special session to review overall progress following the Earth Summit.

Under a multi-year thematic work programme, the Commission has monitored the early implementation of Agenda 21 in stages. Each sectoral issue — health, human settlements, freshwater, toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, land, agriculture, desertification, mountains, forests, biodiversity, atmosphere, oceans and seas — was reviewed between 1994 and 1996. Developments on most “cross-sectoral” issues are considered each year. These issues, which must be addressed if action in sectoral areas is to be effective, are clustered as follows: critical elements of sustainability (trade and environment, patterns of production and consumption, combating poverty, demographic dynamics); financial resources and mechanisms; education, science, transfer of environmentally sound technologies, technical cooperation and capacity-building; decision-making; and activities of the major groups, such as business and labour. (For further details click here on UNCSD.)

In 1995, the Commission established under its auspices the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests with a broad mandate covering the entire spectrum of forest-related issues and dealing with conservation, sustainable development and management of all types of forests. The Panel will submit its final report containing concrete conclusions and proposals for action to the 1997 session of the CSD. (For further details click here on IPF )

Reports submitted annually by Governments are the main basis for monitoring progress and identifying problems faced by countries. By mid-1996, some 100 Governments had established national sustainable development councils or other coordinating bodies. More than 2,000 municipal and town governments had each formulated a local Agenda 21 of its own. Many countries were seeking legislative approval for sustainable development plans, and the level of NGO involvement remained high.

Standard-setting

Central to the ability of Governments to formulate policies for sustainability and to regulate their impact is the development of a set of internationally accepted criteria and indicators for sustainable development. The Commission on Sustainable Development is spearheading this work, which will enable countries to gather and report the data needed to measure progress on Agenda 21. It is hoped that a “menu” of indicators — from which Governments will choose those appropriate to local conditions — will be used by countries in their national plans and strategies and, subsequently, when they report to the Commission.

Achieving sustainable development worldwide depends largely on changing patterns of production and consumption — what we produce, how it is produced and how much we consume, particularly in the developed countries. CSD’s work programme in this area focuses on projected trends in consumption and production; impacts on developing countries, including trade opportunities; assessment of the effectiveness of policy instruments, including new and innovative instruments; progress by countries through their timebound voluntary commitments; and extension and revision of UN guidelines for consumer protection.

In 1995, the Commission also adopted a work programme on the transfer of environmentally sound technology, cooperation and capacity building. The programme places an emphasis on three interrelated priority areas: access to and dissemination of information, capacity building for managing technological change, and financial and partnership arrangements. The Commission is working with the World Trade Organization, the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to ensure that trade, environment and sustainable development issues are mutually reinforcing.

Financing Sustainable Development

At Rio, it was agreed that most financing for Agenda 21 would come from within a country’s own public and private sectors. However, new and additional external funds were considered necessary if developing countries were to adopt sustainable development practices. Of the estimated $600 billion required annually by developing countries to implement Agenda 21, most — $475 billion — was to be transferred from economic activities in those countries.

A further $125 billion would be needed in new and additional funds from external sources, some $70 billion more than current levels of official development assistance (ODA). According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), between 1992 and 1995, levels of ODA fell from about $60.8 billion to $59.2 billion, despite a call at Rio for donor countries to more than double their official assistance.

Other monies are available for implementation of Agenda 21. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was set up in 1991. It is implemented by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme. The GEF provides funding for activities aimed at achieving global environmental benefits in four areas: climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution of international waters and the depletion of the ozone layer. At Rio, the Facility became the funding mechanism for activities under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 1994, the scope of the GEF’s funding was broadened to include land degradation, primarily desertification and deforestation, where this is linked to the four focal areas above. Since 1992, some $2 billion has been pledged for activities supported by the GEF.

In the years since the Earth Summit, the level of funding channelled to many of the developing countries as direct private investment has increased significantly and now far outstrips official flows. In 1995, this reportedly amounted to some $95 billion. Efforts are being made to ensure that activities supported by these funds are also environmentally sustainable.

Five Years After Rio

In June 1997, the world’s attention will again focus on the Earth Summit. When Governments meet in New York for the UN General Assembly’s special session to review progress since Rio, the question will be: What changes have the major players — including Governments, international policy makers, businesses, trade unions, farmers and women’s groups — been able to bring about in the five years since Rio? A great deal has happened, but, in the view of some, not nearly enough to achieve the Summit’s goals. There is growing awareness of the many “negative incentives” which continue to encourage people to become wasteful consumers. The Commission intends to elaborate for the 1997 special session of the GA concrete proposals for mechanisms and policy instruments to facilitate achieving the aims of Rio.

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