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Road through green fields
From Rio to Johannesburg

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 development.

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 degradation.

Slow progress

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.

Second chance

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."

Summit preparations

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.

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