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The Earth Summit

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
Rio de Janeiro, 1992

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A Brief Introduction *


The roots of the Earth Summit reach back to the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, which put environment on the international agenda for the first time. By 1983, the relationship between economic development and its impact on the environment had become the subject of inquiry by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission.

In its 1987 report, Our Common Future, the Commission defined sustainable development as "that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs", and called for strategies for integrating environment and development. As a result, the UN General Assembly decided in 1989 to hold a conference that would produce these strategies, and the UN Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro from 3 to 14 June 1992. It was hosted by the Government of Brazil and 172 Governments participated, among them 108 who sent their heads of State or Government.

The 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.

Non-governmental participation

Some 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were present at the UN conference; 17,000 people attended the parallel NGO Forum. NGOs were present at the Earth Summit to put their views across and emphasise the roles all parts of society have to play in moving towards sustainable development. Their involvement reflected the importance attached to the role of civil society in sustainable development, a role that continues to be emphasized by the Commission on Sustainable Development.

Major Groups

Agenda 21 identifies nine "major groups" as partners with Governments in the global implementation of the Rio agreements. They are:
young people
trade unions
business and industry
local authorities
indigenous peoples
NGOs working in environment and development.

Agreements reached at Rio and since

Agreement was reached at Rio on a number of documents, Conventions and processes:

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) Agenda 21 - negotiated by governments during preparation for the Earth Summit, Agenda 21 does not represent any binding commitment by governments, but constitutes a 'blueprint for sustainable development'. Its 40 chapters covered most areas of human activity, with some notable omissions (energy, tourism, transport) which have been revisited this year.

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) The Rio Declaration - 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'

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) The Forestry Principles

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) The Framework Convention on Climate Change, a legally binding agreement; the parties to the Convention meet to agree shared targets and commitments (so-called "Conferences of the Parties").

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) The Convention on Biological Diversity, a legally binding agreement; the parties to the Convention meet to agree shared targets and commitments (so-called "Conferences of the Parties").

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) - set up after the Earth Summit as the focus within the UN System for monitoring implementation of the Rio agreements. Intended as a catalyst for action at national and international levels

Related international agreements reached since 1992 include

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) the Convention to Combat Desertification (1994),

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) the Conference on Small Island Developing States (1994),

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) the Conference on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (1995), and

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) the CSD Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (1996 - 7).


Follow-up mechanisms

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) Commission on Sustainable Development

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) Inter-agency Committee on Sustainable Development

bulletklein.gif (275 bytes) High-level Advisory Board on Sustainable Development (concluded in 1997)


* taken and adapted from:
UN Briefing Papers/The World Conferences: Developing Priorities for the 21st Century. 1997, 112 pp., ISBN 92-1-100631-7, Sales No. E.97.I.5. Availab le now in English, forthcoming in French and Spanish. $12.00, available at
UNED-UK Report on Earth Summit II / Summary of Development since Rio at


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