Chester, England
23 March


The objective of the Rio Earth Summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on the 4 - 14 June 1992, was to examine the state of the environment and development since the 1972 UN (United Nations ) Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. This summit became known by a number of different names:
· UNCED - The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
· The Earth Summit
· Rio
The Earth Summit was the largest and probably the most complex conference ever organised by the UN. It was the largest gathering of heads of state in history, as it was attended by 178 governments and there were some 120 heads of state at the Summit.

The Earth Summit was not only the first time that over 100 heads of state sat down to discuss common issues - it was also the first time that business and industry played an important and constructive role in the run up of a global UN conference.

The conference was also significant for its inclusive nature. Close to 35,000 people attended, including 8,000 journalists from 111 nations - twice as many as any other UN Conference. More than 1,000 Non Governmental Organisations ( NGOs ) registered at the Conference with approx. 1/3 of them form the Third World, providing the largest face-to-face forum of its kind for NGO representatives from both developed and developing nations. The Earth Summit was unprecedented in bringing together people from all walks of life, cultures, political systems, and environmental - development experiences.

The Summit at Rio only happened due to the fact that the message from Environmental Scientists was finally heard by politicians - that the future of the planet is a matter of urgent anxiety.

The purpose of UNCED, was to

" elaborate strategies and measures to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation in the context of increased national and international efforts to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development in all countries " ( 1 )

Because of the absence of " Superpower conflict ", the Summit concentrated more on co-operation than competition. It addressed:

" problems that are planetary in scope, that cannot be resolved by traditional diplomacy that pits one region against the others" ( 2 )

The key issues addressed at the Rio Summit are expressed in the form of 5 documents:
· The Convention on Climate Change
· The Convention on Biological Diversity
· The Statement of Forest Principles
· The Rio Declaration
· Agenda 21

The 2 conventions are " binding ", meaning that nations are expected to fulfil the obligations outlined in the treaties without legal enforcement. Parties meet to agree shared targets and commitments.

The Statement on Forests is what has been described as " an intensely controversial set of principles on forest conservation practises ".

The Rio Declaration is a set of 27 principles endorsed by governments supporting the :
" goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of co-operation among states, key actors of societies and people", and is a list of guidelines for global sustainable development.

Agenda 21 is an 800 page proclamation that is a " blueprint " for implementing the Rio Declaration, outlining the actions that nations must take from now until the year 2000, to ensure the planet’s future. These agreements were negotiated separately and are not necessarily connected ( they are all separate international agreements, though joint implication is encouraged ).

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development ( CSD ) was set up after the Earth Summit as the focus within the UN System for monitoring and implementation of the Rio agreements.

By including nearly every nation in its decision making process, the Rio Summit marked a turning point in multilateral negotiations. It was, according to one US NGO delegate: " an enormous experiment in decision making for the future " ( 3 )

The issues that proved most difficult to resolve in 1992, are still problematic today. Questions related to the provision of financial resources and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries have haunted conferences from Barbados to Cairo, from desertification negotiations in Paris to climate changes in Berlin and Biodiversity negotiations in Buenos Aires. Forests have been the subject of at least 4 meetings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development ( CSD’s) Intergovernmental Panel on Forests, yet heading into UNGASS, there was no agreement on how to proceed. Setting targets and timetables for Greenhouse Gas Emission reductions proved impossible during the negotiations that resulted in the Framework Convention on Climate Change ( which resulted in the Kyoto Conference ).

The UK Government launched " Sustainable Development - the UK Strategy " in 1994, which considered means by which to address environmental concerns by 2012. Action plans were released on:
· Biodiversity
· Forests
· Climate Change
At the same time a National Round Table on Sustainable Development was established. This cross sectional body has set its own agenda over the past 4 years, examining issues on anything from transport to the implications of increasing working from home. A 5 person Advisory Panel to the Prime Minister ( PM ) was also set up, under Sir Crispin Tickell - their scope has taken in more international concerns, and has included recommendations for action on marine and forestry issues.

The Commission on Sustainable Development has 53 members elected on a regional basis. The UK has been one of these since the CSD’s creation in 1993; its current term expires this year, but the UK will be eligible for re - election. Britain has also played an active role in the work of the UN Environment Programme ( UNEP ) and has consistently contributed more than the assessed contribution towards UNEP’s work.

The UK hosted the Global Forum in Manchester in 1994, at which local sustainability was the focus for participants from around the World. Over 90% of UK local authorities are engaged in some form of local Agenda 21 process.

UNED-UK was established in 1993, to promote awareness and involvement in a follow up to Rio at local, national and international levels. Over the past 5 years, UNED-UK has initiated Round Tables on issues to be addressed by the CSD. These have included:
· poverty
· marine issues
· health and environment
· sustainable agriculture
· education
· gender
· forests
Members have come from all sectors, including industry, trade unions, NGO’s, local authorities and university departments.

The failure at the New York Earth Summit ( 23 - 27 June ’97 ) to agree on a common political statement is a reflection of the fact that the political gap between North and South has widened, not narrowed, since the Rio Earth Summit, as you point out. The world expected action after Rio, and the Political Statement was meant to reassure the public that the shortfalls of the past 5 years would be made up by concerted, unified action. After 3 attempts at drafting a statement which both the developed North and the developing South could agree to, the exercise was abandoned.

The President of the General Assembly, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, freely admitted that governments had failed to deliver on their promises and that it was now up to Non Governmental Organisations and grassroots movements to intensify their own efforts and to increase pressure on governments to act for positive change.

" For the first time, we have recognised the limitations of our promises. The bane of international co-operation is that governments cannot maintain commitments - not just on resources, but on doing things over the long haul. " ( 4 )

We’ve also let the South down. We can’t even get started with the objective of sustainable development until rich countries put real resources behind what they know is their responsibility.

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Hon. Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Muhammad, said: " Why should the poor nations be forced to clear up their mess created by the rich? The rich have got to change their life - styles in the North, the CO2 agreement has been made meaningless because one great power has failed to agree to cuts in CO2 emissions; why should the poor countries be told they must continue to be poor, in case the rich want to make use of their forests? "

Greenpeace says that UNCED started with high hopes, but has provided words, where action was needed, and was a failure. " It’s an abdication of responsibility and a tremendously squandered opportunity "( 5 )

The World Wildlife Fund ( WWF ) proclaimed that all the New York Earth Summit portrayed, was the lack of initiative needed by countries to carry out the agreements made at Rio. " The Rio agreements were rightly hailed as a major success, but the promises made there, have been betrayed in New York. " ( 6 )

But perhaps the most worrying point of all is raised in the words of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. " What we have witnessed in the five years after Rio has been a nearly complete halt to international dialogue on environment and sustainable development. "

The headline stories at " Earth Summit II " were nearly all negative. The global environment shows continuing deterioration, according to the UN Environmental Programme’s Global Environmental Outlook; no progress was made in agreeing a halt to the decline in aid to developing countries; and the world’s biggest polluter, the US, resisted external pressure to make some move to set domestic targets for reducing CO2 emissions.

As a result of this, many people are questioning the value of the event - and therefore the usefulness of mechanisms, institutions and processes set up to carry out the agreements reached in Rio.

However, as the NGO parallel Earth Charter began:
" We are the Earth, the people, plants and animals, rains and oceans, breath of the forest and flow of the sea ". It is therefore up to ourselves, as individuals, to all pull together, to create a safe, healthy and habitable environment for the children of our future to reside in.


1. Peter M. Haas, Marc A. Levy, and Edward A. Parson
" Appraising the Earth Summit: How should we judge UNCED’s success?"
Environment, V34, no 8, October 1992.

2. Anthony Giffard
" News Agency Coverage of the Rio Summit "
Paper presented at the IAMCR, Dublin, Ireland. 1993.

3. Fran Spivy - Weber
Private Communication
November 21, 1993.

4. Razali Ismail, President of the General Assembly.

5. Clifton Curtis, Greenpeace.

6. Gordon Shepherd, World Wildlife Fund.

 [Bonsai tree]

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