visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)9. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,
  The "Earth Summit"

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dot.gif (101 bytes) Background dot.gif (101 bytes) The Conventions
dot.gif (101 bytes) The preparatory process dot.gif (101 bytes) The "other results" of Rio
dot.gif (101 bytes) The event dot.gif (101 bytes) Events since the summit
dot.gif (101 bytes) The Rio Declaration dot.gif (101 bytes) Conclusions
dot.gif (101 bytes) Agenda 21


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The event

21. The Earth Summit occasion itself was the largest gathering of its kind. Two main parallel happenings took place in Rio de Janeiro during the first two weeks of June. The "official" event, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development took place at Rio Centro, some 30 km from downtown. Some 182 governments sent official delegations, accompanied by about 1500 officially registered observers of non-governmental organizations; an even larger number of representatives of various inter-governmental and UN organizations, and last but not least by over 8000 representatives of the press corps. During the last two days, the conference was turned into an "Earth Summit," when over 100 Heads of States gathered to put a final seal of approval on the outcomes of the Conference. [ The UNCED Secretariat, in cooperation with the Ottawa-based International Development Research Council (IDRC) has assembled all these documents, as well as the final report of the Earth Summit, to be available in June 1993, as the "UNCED Archives" on a single CD-ROM, for the first anniversary of the Earth Summit. ]

22. Next to the "official" conference, in downtown Rio de Janeiro a much larger gathering took place: the '92 Global Forum, which brought together many thousands of organizations and individuals from the world over for two weeks of presentations, debates, discussions, exhibitions, celebrations and prayer on the issues of sustainable development.

23. The mobilization of governmental and non-governmental presence at the Earth Summit was unprecedented. The effect was that even those who did not want to be involved, those who did not want to listen, had to do so. "Everybody" was in Rio, if not in person, at least via radio, television, newspapers or electronic conferencing. For two weeks, the world spoke sustainable development.

24. However, there was much more to the Earth Summit than the "media effect." Five major substantive outputs were achieved, including the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, Conventions on Climate and Biodiversity, and the Statement of Forest Principles.

The Rio Declaration

25. The original intent was to negotiate an "Earth Charter," a charter with major international importance in delineating the relationship between humankind and the environment. Unfortunately, by the fourth PrepCom, negotiations indicated that either the nations of the world were not ready for an Earth Charter, or that the charter would have to be less important -- more like a statement, a declaration of key principles. This is how, after some of the most difficult negotiations of the UNCED process, the concept and the specific points of the Rio Declaration were born during the late night hours of one of the last sessions of the fourth PrepCom in New York.

26. The Rio Declaration contains principles of rights and responsibilities of States for achieving sustainable development. In that, it contains references to the need for the alleviation of poverty as a key condition for sustainable development. It discusses the sovereign rights of countries to exploit their own natural resources. There are references to issues of equity within, and also between generations. The point of "differentiated responsibility" of richer and poorer countries is raised. The affirmation of liability for transboundary pollution is complemented by the call for using the "Polluter Pays Principle" wherever possible. In case of uncertainty, the "Precautionary Principle" should guide.

27. The main weakness with the Rio Declaration is not so much what is missing, but the vagueness or weakness of the way the principles are formulated. For these reasons, many countries non-governmental organizations are not satisfied with the Rio Declaration and hope to come back to the issue. Many hope that it will be possible to develop a true Earth Charter by 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations. The World Council of Churches and the Earth Council are among the many organizations to have shown strong interest in this.

Agenda 21

28. Arguably, one the most important outputs of the Earth Summit is Agenda 21, a broad-based action plan to move toward sustainable development into the 21st century. Agenda 21 is a massive document, containing hundreds of pages worth of analysis, objectives and recommended actions, distributed into 40 chapters. [ The official version of the "Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992" is being published by the United Nations in New York. Volume I, containing the resolutions of the Conference, including the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles (Document A/CONF.151/26/Rev.1 -Vol. 1 - UN Publication Sales No. E.93.I.8) contains 486 pages, of which Agenda 21 takes up 471 pages. ]  Particularly important is that Agenda 21 represents global political consensus on what it contains. It is relatively easy to bring together a handful of people to agree on the key problems faced by the world, or even to agree on solutions to these problems. The Earth Summit managed to bring together 182 countries, at the highest political level, to create consensus on the key issues and their solutions -- i.e., on Agenda 21.

29. Because Agenda 21 represents such a broad consensus, a great deal of its text remains vague, and often neither the analysis nor the solutions proposed are up to date or the "best." This is inevitable when, for example, as in Chapter 9, the Atmosphere, Agenda 21 deals with the issue of fossil fuels. Consensus between the oil exporting countries of the Middle East on the one hand, and some of the highly industrialized countries of Europe, on the issue of the polluting nature of fossil fuels is currently impossible. Consequently, there is no mention in Agenda 21 that fossil fuels are environmentally the most polluting fuels of all! However, an action programme is outlined which emphasizes the need for more energy efficiency, and for the use of renewable sources of energy -- thus all was not lost!

30. Agenda 21 is not a "super action plan" to replace existing programmes and plans. What Agenda 21 provides is a global, interdisciplinary framework for analysing and proposing solutions to problems of sustainable development. It demonstrates where there is (or is not) sufficient intergovernmental consensus for concrete national or intergovernmental action. Each of the 40 chapters includes a brief analysis of the key issues, a number of objectives, and some specific actions that governments, as well as international and national organizations, can implement to move toward sustainable development.

31. Agenda 21 is not a convention nor a treaty with legal force. It could be placed in the general category of "international soft law." No country or organization is obligated by law to follow its recommendations. However, the fact that 182 countries accepted it at the Earth Summit gives it a legitimacy and status to refer to. Indeed, one probably will refer to it for some years to come.

32. While this is not the place for detailed evaluation of the substance of Agenda 21 -- indeed not possible in a paper of this nature -- it can be said that Agenda 21 deals in one way or another with most of the key environment and development problems that we face today and anticipate in the near future. There are chapters dealing with reform of existing policies, sectoral, as well as cross-sectoral. Various programmes that can contribute to the alleviation of poverty are included. It is recognized that both the rapid growth of the total number of people (especially in developing countries), and the very high level and often wasteful nature of consumption by many (especially in industrialized countries), together are responsible for many of the stresses being placed on natural resources, and on the pollution absorption capacity of ecosystems. As the problems are interrelated, the solutions have to include work involving many different sectors. This theme is repeated over and over in Agenda 21. Neither the ministries of environment, nor

for that matter, those in economic development, will be able to bring about sustainable development on their own. All the economic sectors (i.e., energy, industry, agriculture) must be brought in, and within each sector, the governmental as well as non-governmental organizations, the private sector, the general public, youth groups, the indigenous people, etc.

33. One of the key underlying problems is that of developing the capacity of people to deal with their own problems. Capacity building, as an important component of the overall development effort is greatly emphasized throughout. Capacity building is also central when discussing technology. While there is more room for "technology transfer," especially to developing countries and countries in transition, it is more important to empower people to develop or acquire the technologies they need. And underlying all of these concerns is the need for new and additional financial resources to cover the "incremental costs" of "developing" in "sustainable ways." For the latter, Agenda 21 envisaged approximately $120 billion per year, twice as much as present day aid flows, would be needed to get developing countries on a sustainable path during the coming decade.

34. Without a full analysis of Agenda 21 here, one can say it should be judged not just by absolute content, but by the process it generated. For example, it is true that better, stronger words have been said on questions of energy efficiency and the use of renewable sources of energy during the past few decades. The political context in which these words were written and in which 182 governments accepted them is what is important here.

35. The real judgment will only come in the years ahead, when we begin to evaluate what countries are actually doing nationally and in international organizations. Do new development plans take into account all the different aspects of sustainable development identified in Agenda 21? Are the different stakeholders fully involved in the preparation and implementation of those plans, or are they just bystanders? These are the kinds of question that will have to be asked in the follow up process, and only than will we know whether Agenda 21 had been a successful framework.

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