published on 20 January 2012 in air

From Rio to Rio+20

20 years after Rio
In June this year, in Rio de Janeiro, the world conference on sustainable development will be held again: Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), twenty years after the first important Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992. This short article, which illustrates the history of sustainability policies from Rio to date, is the first of  a series of articles which will describe the main results obtained in the past twenty years,  and will examine in detail the progress made in implementing the Conventions that originated in Rio in 1992 and the main challenges for the future, to be faced at Rio+20. The event in Rio in 1992 , officially known as UNCED (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development), was the first real world meeting of heads of State on the environment and it had a great impact in the media, preparing the way for policies on the environment and development, which have accompanied us over the two past decades. At the world summit,172 Governments and 108 heads of State or Government and 2,400 representatives of Non Governmental Organizations participated , and over 17,000 people took part in the  Non Governmental Organizations Forum, expressing their strong desire to work towards a more sustainable future of our planet.

A dialogue over twenty years
But what led to the first large Earth Summit, what was decided in Rio, and what has happened from 1992 to date? In fact, UNCED aroused great interest because it is also the result of an international political process which has no precedents, and which has tried to create a global vision of the problems of the environment and development – that would lead to the definition of real international policies – and also to stimulate the national policies in favour of a new development model, a condition that is absolutely necessary for the construction of a global road to sustainable development. To prove the commitment of the different countries, in Rio, most Governments brought along with them a report on the state of the environment and the development in their own Country, which was often the fruit of an internal consulting process, involving non-governmental groups, and the organization and participation in an infinite number of national and international meetings on the theme of the environment and development. However, let us go back in time a little. The roots of the interest and worries shown by society and the institutions with regard to environmental topics, in fact, date back even further : the environmental debate developed in the 60s in the industrialized countries on some specific topics, such as the problems of air pollution, waste management, acidification of water and the ozone hole, which were however dealt with on a more local and in some cases regional level. The growing attention with regard to environmental topics led to an important summit meeting, which was held in Stockholm in Sweden in 1972: the UN Conference on the Human Environment for the first time also brought to the attention the voices of the developing nations on these topics. This event had a key role in promoting the development of national environmental policies, with the creation of agencies and ministries for the environment, and for a national environmental legislation, especially in the industrialized countries. On an international scale, the Stockholm Conference generated the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and ratified the sovereign right to exploit natural resources, associated with the responsibility for pollution caused beyond the frontiers of each one’s own country, and led to many other initiatives to deal with the less local and increasingly more global dimension that the environmental problems were gaining, and which were inextricably connected with the process of social and economic development. Among these initiatives, surely we must remember the historical Report of the Brundtland Commission ‘Our Common future’, produced in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development – established by UNEP and chaired by the Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland – that analyzed the state of the society, the economy and the environment on a global scale, together with the dynamics of their interactions. The Brundtland Report highlighted the crucial role of the environment in supporting growth, and crystallized the concept of sustainable development, and laid down the foundations of the road to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The period after Rio spread the concept of sustainable development all over the world, catalyzing global attention on these topics in the following years.

Rio agreements
Officially the conference in Rio in 1992 led to 5 agreements: the Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration , the Statement of Forest Principles, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological diversity. All these agreements set down the principles for sustainability, engaging the Governments in a series of processes to be implemented in the after-Rio period. Agenda 21 is a huge document, with 41 chapters, that defines an action plan for sustainable development, covering specific natural resources, the role of the different groups of actors – stakeholders – and aspects that are tied to the development and social and economic implementation of the sustainability programme. Agenda 21 has offered some basic guidelines and has become a reference document for the Governments on the topic of sustainability, integrating the dimension of the environment with that of development, and promoting a bottom-up approach to participation, and is strongly based on the role of the local communities in the design and implementation of the development plans.
The Rio Declaration includes 27 principles that guide the actions on the environment and development, among which the principles regarding the right of development and the decrease in poverty, and the rights and roles of the different social groups with regard to trade and the environment.
The Forest Principles are a first attempt to negotiate an agreement on the forests, with an emphasis on the sovereign right to exploit the forest resources together with a series of general principles regarding the management and protection of the forests. With regard to the Conventions, in Rio, in 1992, the Governments signed and made available the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), which became effective in 1994 and in 1993 respectively.
Also in Rio, the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), ‘sister’ of the other two Conventions was established, adopted, and signed by the Governments. It was made available only later, in 1994, and was enforced in 1996. Among the Conventions that were established in Rio, UNFCCC surely was the most important, and with the signature and enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol, it began the process to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, with binding commitments for the Industrialized Countries, implementing market instruments to decrease the emissions, based on efficiency criteria. UNFCCC catalysed the attention of the public, of science, and the institutions in the after-Rio period, due to the truly important dimensions of the phenomenon of climate change from both a physical and from an economic and political point of view. In fact historically it was especially the industrialized countries that contributed to this phenomenon; and today and in the near future, also other emerging economies, that are rapidly growing and that require energy, will contribute to this phenomenon, and this will have a severe impact on many sectors of the economy and of society, and shall cause greater damage in the southern countries of the world, that are already more vulnerable from an environmental, social and economic point of view. We therefore now face a topic of global proportions, which however has differences in the historical, present and future responsibilities, and level of vulnerability in the different regions of the world. The design of a new road towards a more sustainable world, to be discussed at the next Rio+20, appointment , will have to take into account the integration of climate policies and institutions with policies and the institutional context for a green economy.
Besides UNFCCC, even though it is less invoked, the Convention on Biological Diversity has been an important step forward in the conservation of biological diversity, in a more sustainable use of the various forms of biodiversity, and in the more equitable distribution of the profits deriving from the use of genetic resources. In fact the Convention was born with the scope of preserving the biological diversity of our planet, through the protection of the species and the ecosystems, and to set out the conditions for the use of resources and technologies associated with biodiversity. The Convention recognizes the sovereign rights of the States on the biological resources of their territory, however the fruits of the same must be shared in a fair manner, according to the conditions that are mutually agreed on by the countries. Among the implementation mechanisms foreseen by the Convention, perhaps the most significant is the design of a strategic plan for 2011-2020, whose scope is to identify the principal objectives of the action to protect biodiversity.

Experts to work
The 1992 Earth Summit undoubtedly represented a success, at that historical and political time, from the point of view of the institutions, confirming and legitimizing the United Nations system as the most suited institutional body to promote sustainable development, in the attempt to conciliate the inevitable difference between the countries in the North and in the South of the world. The topic of governance and the institutional context for sustainability, as we have seen when faced with the world economy and energy crisis, have now become central nodes of the debate on sustainable development. The after-Rio process has led to not only the organization of some important events that were programmed to follow up the decisions and the implementation of programmes that were decided upon in Rio, but also to the establishment of ad hoc institutions such as the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), or the development of complementary programmes , implemented by other internal bodies of the United Nations system, such as the United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The Commission on Sustainable Development was created specifically to guarantee that there would be a follow-up and that the decisions made at the Earth Summit would be implemented, monitoring the progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development.
10 years after Rio, in 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the first large official sequel to the Earth Summit was organized: the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which is better known as Rio+10. The Johannesburg Summit was particularly interesting, due to the fact that it successfully involved not only the heads of State, but also the representatives of the business world and of the associations, starting a partnership process between the public and the private sector, that would have a crucial role in the future policies regarding sustainability. The principal result of the Summit probably was the Johannesburg Declaration, that confirms the commitment of the countries around the world for a sustainable development, emphasizing the role of partnerships and multilateral agreements. The Declaration focuses in particular on some themes regarding social development that were highlighted by another important event, organized in 2000 at the start of the new millennium, the World Millennium Summit, that is a milestone in the definition of the aims of development for the global community, to respect human rights and the environment. The World Development Summit created concrete goals to be reached in the new millennium (Millennium Development Goals), confirming the values and principles of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect of nature and sharing responsibilities; the value of peace, of safety and of disarmament; the urgent need for development and eradication of poverty; protection of the environment as a common good; the respect for human rights, democracy and good governance; protection of the more vulnerable segments, and attention to the special needs of Africa, besides the need to strengthen the United Nations system. The instruments of the partnership and the new agreements between Governments that were established during the Johannesburg Summit were promoted precisely with the aim of helping to reach the New Millennium Goals.

Goals of Rio+20
20 years after Rio, based on the principles that were established, and the programmes that were started by the world summits for sustainability that were followed by the United Nations, in June this year, Rio+20 will assess the state of the art of sustainable development from two different points of view: from the point of view of a ”green economy” in the context of sustainable development, and the eradication of poverty, and the point of view of an “institutional context for sustainable development” with the aim of guaranteeing a new political commitment, on an international scale, for sustainable development. Even if, compared to the past, there is greater awareness with regard to the value of the environment and social progress for development, and with regard to the dynamics of the interactions between the environment, the economy and society, the United Nations system finds it difficult to obtain a commitment that is coherent and shared by all the Member Countries on the more urgent themes to be faced on a global scale, and the design of an institutional context that is more adequate and efficient will be the topic of the negotiations, and will play a crucial role in pursuing sustainability.
In the programme of the Rio+20 Conference, some topics, of prior importance, will be discussed in detail, such as:

  • work, dedicating particular attention to the green jobs;
  • energy, dealing with the topic of access to energy and poor energy, besides energy efficiency and renewable energies;
  • cities, as motors of growth and development;
  • food, re-thinking of the food production, distribution and consumption models, to face the food , environment and climate crisis;
  • water, to tangibly face the problems of scarcity and quality of water, afflicting vast areas in the poorer regions of the world, thus exacerbating disease, hunger and malnutrition;
  • oceans, crucial for the equilibrium of the ecosystems;
  • natural disasters, to understand how to develop environmental, social and economic systems that are resilient to extreme events which are expected increasingly frequently in the future, for example through infrastructural interventions or emergency planning measures.

Edited by Alessandra Goria

With the sponsorship of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research
Eni S.p.A. - P.IVA 00905811006