Sustainable Development at Rio, 1992 and After Rio!
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) at Rio in 1992 (the Earth Summit) was attended by 128 heads of states and in total by the representatives of some 178 government. Debate at the conference drew very directly on the mainstream ideas about the environment and development that had evolved during the 1980s.
The Rio Declaration and the much larger Agenda 21 were the fruit of endless negotiation at a series of Preparatory Commission meetings and at Rio itself, between teams of diplomats determined to surrender as little as possible of their national interest.
A key feature of these debates was the gap between countries in the industrialized North and the underdeveloped South, which became steadily more glaring in the run up to, and during, the conference.
The issues of climatic change and biodiversity that dominated the Rio Conference are vitally important to certain countries (especially those vulnerable to sea-level rise), but they are not the principal environmental problems faced by most countries of the South.
The Rio Declaration ended up as a bland list of 27 principles. It was long-winded, and in places self-contradictory: even after long debate, the US delegation released an ‘interpretative statement’ that effectively dissociated it from a number of the principles agreed.
It dissented from principle 3 that there was a right to development, the Americans arguing that development was not a right but simply a shared goal, and from any interpretation of principle 7 that suggested that there was an international liability to make development sustainable (i.e., for rich countries to pay for it). Choices about development and environment were matters for individual countries to make their minds up about, and not an issue over which they should be subject to international opinion.
Agenda 21 was even more burdened by divergent opinions. Its scope was enormous, covering issues from biodiversity and water quality to the role of women, children and organised labour in delivering sustainable development. It reflected previous mainstream thinking about sustainable development in several ways.
First, it made the need for economic growth a central theme, as in the Brundtland Report. In the sustainable development mainstream, everything is predicated on economic growth, both globally and nationally. Second, Agenda 21 emphasised the familiar straightforward issues of environmental management: all the familiar environmental issues from the World Conservation Strategy appear developed but unmistakable.
Third, Agenda 21 was techno centric. The first six key themes make this quite clear: growth with power and technology will direct the evolution of policy towards more efficient use of the environment and hence towards a more sustainable world economy. The ‘essential means’ to achieve sustainability also reflect this techno centrism, building on information, science and environmentally-sound technology.
Fourth, Agenda 21 presumed a multilateral benefit to be derived from a sustainable development strategy, as did the Brundtland Report. It suggested that change would arise from the mutual interest of industrialised and non-industriahsed countries, and from the concern of present generations about the future.
It suggested that this shared interest would cause international financial resources and technology to flow, directed and promoted by international agencies and structured and regulated by international legal instruments.
Fifth, like its predecessors Agenda 21 called for sustainable development through participation. As in Caring for the Earth, women, children, young people, indigenous people, trade unionists, businessmen, industrialists, farmers, local authorities and scientists are all summoned to play a role a rainbow coalition to put flesh on the endless skeleton on the text of Agenda 21.
At the close of Earth Summit+5—the nineteenth special session of the United Nations General Assembly, held from 23 to 28 June 1997 in New York—delegates from over 165 countries adopted the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21. In the final document, governments acknowledged that the global environment has continued to deteriorate since 1992, with rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, toxic pollution and solid waste. Renewable resources, notably fresh water, forests, topsoil and marine fish stocks continue to be used at rates that are clearly unsustainable.
To address these concerns, governments took action on several fronts at the special session, as reflected in the final document.
Among other decisions, they agreed to reconfirm the political commitment to sustainable development from all members of the international community, as well as from all major groups of civil society:
1. reconfirm the financial commitments;
2. establish an Inter-governmental Forum on Forests under the Commission on Sustainable Development to continue policy dialogue on this issue, including more focused consideration of elements for a possible legal instrument;
3. open high-level inter-governmental dialogues on fresh water, and on energy and transport, which will be taken up by the Commission on Sustainable Development at upcoming sessions;
4. Make a stronger commitment at the global level to such issues as tourism, changing production and consumption patterns, and eco-efficiency; and
5. Set a more focused work programme for the Commission on I Sustainable Development.
After a decade of Rio Conference a summit conference was organised by the UN at Johannesburg (South Africa) on Sustainable Development in 2002. The main purpose of the summit was to make an assessment of the achievements after a decade of the Rio Summit. The Rio Summit had raised the problem of the prevention of deforestation, clean air and drinking water and reduces the level of poverty in developing countries.
This will lead to sustainable urban development. Unfortunately, the situation since Rio has further deteriorated. Further commitment was asserted and efforts were made for mutual understanding between developed and developing nations on sustainable development, but still a long way to go.