From Rio to Johannesburg
A decade after the UN Earth Summit in Rio, the
international community met again in South Africa at the end of
August 2002 to renew commitment at the highest level to sustainable
In 1992, the United Nations Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit
focused international attention on the growing environmental and
development problems facing our planet. This was a landmark event
that put the issues of sustainable development on the international
agenda for the first time.
Spurred on by a real sense of urgency, the 178 governments
attending the Earth Summit signed up to Agenda
21 an ambitious global action plan for achieving sustainable
development. This document set out a long-term vision for balancing
economic and social needs with the capacity of the earth's natural
resources. In the immediate aftermath of Rio, governments, NGOs and
other stakeholders joined forces to implement the plan. There was a
real belief that global leaders were on their way to tackling issues
such as poverty eradication, social injustice and environmental
A decade on, it had become clear that the vision and commitment shown at
the Rio Summit did not last. While some real progress was made
- for instance with the convention on climate change and other
national and regional initiatives - many of the actions agreed have
still not been implemented. The move towards a more sustainable
world has been slower than many expected and in some respects
environmental conditions are worse today than they were in 1992. Developing countries were particularly frustrated that the aid
promised at Rio did not materialise and accuses the developed world
of failing to live up to their political commitments.
Europe's Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström believes
there are two main reasons for the slow progress in implementing
Agenda 21. First the developed world's unsustainable patterns of
consumption and production have not changed. "This, for me,
lies at the heart of the problem of globalisation," she said.
"Market liberalisation and trade are indeed opening up new
economic opportunities. But the western model of production and
consumption is simply not viable as a model for the global
economy." The second reason, she believes, is that the
financial resources needed to realise the Rio goals have simply not
been forthcoming. Official development assistance (ODA) actually
declined from 0.35% of donor countries' GNP in 1992 to 0.22% in
2000. "The target of 0.7% of GNP, which has been repeated so
many times, still remains a distant prospect," she explained.
From 26 August to 5 September 2002, the international community met
in Johannesburg to once again take up the challenge of sustainable
development. The World Summit on Sustainable Development was one of the largest
and most important international gatherings ever held on the
subject. It brought together tens of thousands of delegates
including heads of state and government, business leaders and
representatives of all sectors of society. It was a historic
opportunity to build commitment at the highest levels of government
and society for action to implement Agenda 21.
For this process to work second time round, it was vital for
delegates to come up with concrete plans of action, outlining
realistic targets and backing this up with the financial means to
achieve them. "We cannot keep coming back from world gatherings
with impressive commitments and fine words that we then leave in the
corner of our offices to gather dust," Commissioner Wallström
said. "Our implementation deficit will quickly turn into
a credibility gap, notably vis-ā-vis the developing world."
Preparations for the Johannesburg Summit were started
early 2001. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD10), responsible for
preparing the summit, was holding regular preparatory meetings, known
as PrepComs. The fourth and final PrepCom before the summit took
place in Bali in early June 2002.
Following PrepCom discussions, it seemed two types of outcome could
be expected from the summit: a political declaration or action plan
agreed by all governments for the further implementation of Agenda
21 over the next decade; and a series of specific commitments or
voluntary partnership initiatives by and between governments,
citizen groups, and the private sector that would actually translate
the political commitments into action.
In the run-up to the summit, the UN identified a number of
priority areas that the delegates should focus on, including water,
energy, health, governance, globalisation, poverty eradication and
creating sustainable patterns of consumption and production.
Governments, international organisations, and civil society groups
were asked to come up with partnership initiatives to deal with
these and other sustainable development problems. The EU was putting
forward a series of initiatives at the Summit stressing the
experience, expertise and financial assistance that the Member
States were able to offer developing countries.