In June 1992, over 30,000 people met in Rio de Janeiro for the long-awaited United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)—the “Earth Summit.” The gathering involved 120 heads of state and government and their delegations, representing almost 180 nations, as well as nongovernmental organizations, business executives, religious groups, educators, students, and indigenous peoples. It was an event unprecedented in scale, scope, and expectations.
Some delegates thought the outcome was “deeply disappointing,” while others described it as “a triumph.” Some NGOs dismissed the conference as “a complete failure,” while others found it “inspiring.” The spokesman for the Group of 77 developing countries noted that “after this summit, the world will never be the same again.” The conference certainly was disappointing for its lack of specific commitments to timetables for policy change and specific increases in aid programs. But it was also remarkably successful in forging a consensus around the urgent need to integrate policies for development and the environment.
What was agreed
When the 12-day meeting ended, the world’s leaders had adopted by consensus three major agreements and more than 150 countries had signed two major conventions.
Rio Declaration. This brief statement of fundamental principles for guiding human behavior toward the environment sets out the rights and responsibilities of countries, communities, and individuals.
Agenda 21. An 800-page action plan for the 21st century, this ambitious blueprint embraces more than 100 program areas. Early chapters cover the social and economic aspects of sustainable development, including strategies for poverty reduction, health, and population, while the bulk of the document addresses specific environmental problems.
Statement on Forest Principles. This legally nonbinding document calls for accelerated progress in reforestation, afforestation, and conservation, along with more respect for the rights of forest dwellers and host nations in sharing the benefits.
Framework Convention on Climate Change. This treaty aims at stabilizing concentrations of “greenhouse gases” (mainly carbon dioxide). Industrial countries recognize the desirability of returning to their 1990 emissions levels by the year 2000. Although few specific measures or targets are included, a mechanism for deciding on stronger measures in the future, if warranted, was set up.
Biological Diversity Convention. This requires countries to adopt regulations to conserve biological resources, imposes legal responsibility upon nations for the behavior of their private companies in other countries, and calls for technical support and compensation to developing countries for the extraction of genetic materials.
Who will pay the bill?
The most hotly debated chapter of Agenda 21 dealt with how to finance the programs. The negotiated document recognizes that resources will only be available in the presence of economic growth and more open trade and investment. Funding will need to come from polluters (through charges and tradable permits), commercial channels, and voluntary and official sources. Additional concessionary funding will have to come from:
Official development assistance. Developed countries reaffirmed their commitment to reach the UN target of 0.7 percent of GNP (only the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries now do this). Some countries, such as France and Germany, committed themselves to reach the target by the year 2000, although others, such as the United States (now at 0.2 percent), disassociated themselves from the target.
Global Environment Facility. The GEF (run jointly by the World Bank, the UN Environment Programme, and the UN Development Programme) was specified as a major financing channel for projects providing global benefits. It will be expanded to include land degradation issues (desertification and deforestation), as they fit with the areas already covered (global warming, the destruction of biodiversity, pollution of international waters, and ozone depletion). It will also be restructured to encourage universal membership, and a transparent decision-making system that provides a balanced and equitable representation of both recipient and donor interests. These changes should be in place by the end of 1993, when the GEF becomes a full-fledged facility.
International Development Association (IDA). As a way of helping the poorest countries tackle national environmental issues, Agenda 21 advocates an “earth increment” in the upcoming talks to replenish IDA (the Bank’s concessional lending arm) that would be on top of the amount needed to maintain current funding in real terms.
What difference will Rio make?
While the verdicts on the summit differed, all agreed that success must be measured not by words said, or written, but by actions taken. Maurice Strong, the summit’s Secretary General, noted the similarity of many of the speeches to those given at the first environment conference in Stockholm 20 years ago, and the subsequent divergence of words and actions. With that in mind, Rio called upon the UN to create a high-level Commission on Sustainable Development to monitor progress in implementing Agenda 21.
What would happen if governments, aid agencies, and private corporations lived up to their commitments made in Rio? Much greater weight would be given to attacking poverty and reducing environmental damage. Charges for goods and services would reflect scarcity and environmental values. International trade would be freer. More investment would be channeled into sanitation, water supply, education, population, pollution control, and the protection of natural habitats. Official aid programs would be much higher in real terms. The development of renewable energy would become an international priority. Discrimination against girls in education and women in development would be eliminated. And governments worldwide would adhere to more democratic and participatory decisionmaking.
Rio has provided an important impetus to action on these measures, not by demonstrating their desirability, which is obvious, but by convincing leaders of the potentially tragic long-term costs of not taking action today.