Earth Summit

On June 3 and 4, 1992, the Earth Summit (formally the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development or UNCED) met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a twenty-year follow-up to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE, held in Stockholm). The goal of the 120 heads of state, over ten thousand government delegates, and hundreds of officials from UN organizations was to refocus global attention on the planet's degradation. It was the largest gathering of heads of state in history.

Although the post-Stockholm years were marked in many industrialized countries by the incorporation of environmental protection in their policy-making processes, change in economically less developed countries was much slower. There, although, environmental protection objectives were understood as inseparable from economic development, they were often subordinated to it. In this context, with the winding down of the Cold War and such high-profile environmental problems as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, industrialized countries—led by Norway and Canada—and various think tanks and UN-sponsored studies called for a redirection of attention to global environmental issues. Most notably, the World Commission on Environment and Development's report entitled Our Common Future contended that it was "futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality." Called the Bruntland Commission, after its chair Gro Harlem Bruntland, the commission's specific recommendations, presented to the UN General Assembly in 1987, included a call for a convention on environmental protection and sustainable development.

To help achieve this goal, in December 1989 the General Assembly formally agreed to convene another global conference, which came to be known as the Earth Summit. Even before the General Assembly met, the Canadian government proposed that Maurice Strong serve in the same capacity in 1992 as he had in 1972, as secretary-general of the conference; he was appointed to this position in February 1990. Strong chose as chair of the conference's preparatory committee (PrepCom) Tommy Koh, of Singapore, known for his masterful chairing of the Third Law of the Sea conference where he brokered North–South, East–West and land-locked coastal state differences. Much of the preliminary work for the conference was conducted by Prep-Com, which held four substantive sessions from August 1990 to April 1992.

At the Earth Summit, conferees agreed on a comprehensive global blueprint for sustainable development called Agenda 21 and on two sets of general principles: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Forest Principles. As well, two binding conventions that had been negotiated separately from Agenda 21 were signed: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Although such a listing of outcomes looks impressive, a number of related facts must be taken into account. All the key documents had been diluted in the process of achieving consensus. On central issues such as population, energy, forest production, and consumption, Agenda 21 was weakened to the point that it had little clout left. Also, the conventions on climate change and biodiversity were little more than frameworks, leaving the tough, substantive issues to the future. And former U.S. President George Bush refused to the sign the Convention on Biodiversity because of compensation requirements for countries that provide plant and animal sources for biotechnology inventions. He stood virtually alone among the leaders of the industrialized world in refusing to accept a climate change convention with definite targets. The European Union had sought to limit carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.

Perhaps even more significant, and certainly of greater disappointment to delegates from developing countries, was the inability of UNCED to muster the financial commitments necessary to support all of Agenda 21. While developing countries had hoped to obtain commitments for subsidized technology transfer, debt relief, and an increase in official development assistance, the agreement reached at Rio did not commit countries to any new financial support. On the other hand, several industrialized countries pledged to provide some additional resources, and UNCED agreed to restructure the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility (GEF) in ways that would make it somewhat more acceptable to economically less developed countries. For example, GEF decision-making procedures would be more transparent and local governments more involved in GEF project development and administration.

In Rio, nongovernmental organization (NGO) activity took two forms. At the governmental conference, there were more than 1,400 NGOs accredited, including NGO observers within fifteen national delegations. In addition, there was a separate global forum, which involved a series of technical, scientific, and policy meetings and an unprecedented exercise in parallel treaty writing conducted by an international network of NGOs called the International Forum of NGOs and Social Movements. Although forum participants did not receive a chance to present their treaties to the summit and their press conference was poorly attended, the forum provided an international platform for many organizations that are often ignored, short of resources, or actively suppressed in their home countries. Most important, it proved to be a significant catalyst for post-Rio NGO activity.

The focus of post-Rio follow-up attention has been the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Its mandate includes, but is not limited to, the monitoring and implementation of Agenda 21. It also involves monitoring activities related to environmental and developmental goals throughout the UN system, receiving and analyzing information from governments and NGOs, enhancing dialogue with NGOs, and reviewing financial and technology commitments and the implementation of environmental conventions. From the outset, however, the CSD appeared to lack some of the necessary ingredients to fulfill its wide-ranging mandate. For example, because of political disagreements, national reports to the commission were not required, even though such reports have proven valuable for other UN monitoring bodies. Thus, it is not surprising that a December 2001 report issued by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan concluded that "progress towards the goals established at Rio has been slower than anticipated and in some respects conditions are worse than they were ten years ago." As in the past, the UN hopes that a global ad hoc conference—in this instance the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development—would reenergize global efforts proved overly optimistic.



Dodds, Felix, ed. (2001). Earth Summit 2002: A New Deal. London: Earthscan.

Paarlberg, Robert L. (1999). "Lapsed Leadership: U.S. International Environmental Policy Since Rio." In The Global Environment: Institutions, Law, and Policy, edited by Norman J. Vig and Regina S. Axelrod. Washington: CQ Press.

Internet Resource

"UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992)." Available from .

Michael G. Schechter

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