During the twenty years following the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, the deterioration of the global environment continued to accelerate with depletion of the ozone layer and natural resources, while global warming and pollution increased. Little had been accomplished over these years to integrate environmental issues with national economics and development. However, in 1983, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, head of the World Commission on Environment and Development, put forth the notion of sustainable development.
Based on the Brundtland Report, the U.N. General Assembly requested that a conference be convened that specifically focused on the environment and development. As a result, UNCED, or the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro from June 3 to June 14, 1992 (Caldwell, 1993).
The aim of UNCED was to arrive at an understanding of development that would provide a basis for global collaboration between the developed and the developing nations so as to bolster socioeconomic development and halt the deterioration of the Earth's environment. Governments of 108 countries adopted five significant agreements with the goals of improving the environment and redefining the traditional concept of development.
Agenda 21 was the only product of UNCED that encompassed the whole environment and development agenda. It entailed a comprehensive program of global action that covered all aspects of sustainable development with the aim of readying the world for the twenty-first century. Proposals called for social and economic action, including fighting poverty, considering global demographics, and balancing patterns of production with those of consumption. It was agreed that protecting the oceans, freshwater, the atmosphere, forests, and other natural resources, while promoting biodiversity and integrating environmental and developmental concerns, would improve conditions for all states, ensuring a prosperous and healthy future for planet Earth.
The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was a series of principles that supported Agenda 21 by elucidating the rights and responsibilities of states. For example, people are entitled to live in harmony with nature via sustainable development; states have the right to use their own resources, but must not damage the environment of other states; reducing global disparities and eradicating poverty are necessary for sustainable development, which can be aided by strengthening the role of women, youth, farmers, indigenous peoples, and local authorities in the process.
The Statement of Forest Principles describes the legally nonbinding set of principles that underlie the sustainable management of forests. This was the first global consensus on forests that called for all nations, particularly the developed countries, to engage in forest conservation and reforestation. Moreover, it proclaimed that all states have the right to develop forests compatible with their socioeconomic needs and sustainable development policies.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an environmental, nonbinding treaty, was ratified in March, 1994, with the intent to stabilize their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 (Annan, 2000). The principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" was agreed upon, with the developed countries bearing the greater burden of accountability. The Convention on Biodiversity had several aims: sustaining and conserving biodiversity, sharing gene stocks, and commercial access to biotechnology with acceptance of associated liabilities.
From June 23 to 27, 1997, more than fifty-three heads of state or government attended a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City to review and appraise the implementation of Agenda 21. Called Earth Summit +5, its participants determined that the global environment had deteriorated since UNCED convened in 1992; the final document adopted by delegates from 165 nations agreed that while some headway had been made in forestalling climate change and loss of forest and freshwater, there were few commitments to reduce GHGs and help fund sustainable development, mainly because of North-South differences.
Minister Msuya Waldi Mangachi of Tanzania, who represented 133 developing countries, stated that disagreements arose because financial pledges made by the developed countries had not been kept. In 1995, a U.N. panel of scientists found a discernible human influence on global climate. While the UNFCCC was ratified by more than 190 countries, few developed countries met the goal of reducing GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Parties to the UNFCCC were asked to adopt legally binding targets for developed countries by signing the Kyoto Protocol. On the positive side, one of the first accomplishments of the UNFCCC was creation of a national GHG inventory to keep track of gases and their removal from the atmosphere. Signers of the UNFCCC must update their accounts on a regular basis and release them to the UNFCCC. U.S. president George H. W. Bush presented the UNFCCC to the U.S. Senate, which ratified it in October, 1992. The Earth Summit also catalyzed many new institutional arrangements, such as the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), which became a central forum to review implementation of Agenda 21, and the U.N. Interagency Committee on Sustainable Development.
1. Annan, Kofi. "U.N. Development Programme: Choices." Interview by D. Diallo. International Journal of Humanities and Peace 16 (2000).
2. Caldwell, L. K. International Environmental Policy: From the Twentieth to the Twenty-first Century. 3d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.
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