Video about the UN's sustainable development goals. Examples from Papua New Guinea.

Conferences | Environment and Sustainable Development


The history of sustainable development in the United Nations dates back to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was the UN's first major conference on the issue of the environment. The conference adopted the Stockholm Declaration and Plan of Action which set out principles for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment, with recommendations for international environmental action. The Conference also created the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the first UN programme focused solely on environmental issues.

Twenty years later, at the historic Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, the United Nations sought to help Governments rethink economic development and find ways to stop polluting the planet and depleting it's natural resources.

The two-week "Earth Summit" was the climax of a process that had begun in December 1989, of planning, education and negotiations among all Member States of the United Nations, leading to the adoption of Agenda 21, an official global consensus on development and environmental cooperation.

Basic to Agenda 21 was the acknowledgement that protecting the environment required collaboration across boundaries. Agenda 21 was meant to reflect an international consensus to support and supplement national strategies and plans for sustainable development. It called for all States to participate in improving, protecting and better managing ecosystems, and taking common responsibility for the future. 

The Earth Summit also produced the Rio Declaration, which had 27 principles, on new and equitable partnerships and development through cooperation among States, social sectors and individuals. They reflected human beings’ responsibility for sustainable development; the right of States to use their own resources for their environmental and development policies; and the need for State cooperation in poverty eradication and environmental protection. The idea was that States must act in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem

At the historic Rio conference, 172 Governments (108 represented by heads of State or Government) adopted three major agreements to guide future approaches to development: Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration, and also the Statement of Forest Principles, a set of principles to underpin the sustainable management of forests worldwide. In addition, two legally binding instruments were opened for signature at the Summit: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Moreover, negotiations began on the Convention to Combat Desertification, which was opened for signature in October 1994 and entered into force in December 1996.The Rio conference stood out from other UN conferences by its size and the range of problems studied. The United Nations worked in Rio de Janerio to help governments think about economic development and find ways to end the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and the pollution of the planet. 

In 1997, a Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to the environment, also known as 'Earth Summit + 5' examined the implementation of Agenda 21 and proposed a programme for further implementation

Three years later, in 2000, the Millennium Summit established the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg gave birth to a new Action Plan.

In 2005, 2008, and 2010 the Millenium Development Goals were reviewed at high level meetings in New York.

This was followed in 2012, in Rio, by the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also called Rio + 20.

In 2013, two years before the deadline which had been set to meet the Millenium Development Goals, a Special Event was held in New York, at which Member States agreed to convene a High-level Summit in September 2015 to adopt a new set of goals which would build on the foundations laid by the Millennium Development Goals. 

Two years later, in 2015, the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development gave birth to Agenda 2030 and its seventeen sustainable development goals.


Since the landmark 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the issue of the environment has been placed within the framework of sustainable development. All of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have some connection to the environment. The SDGs with a direct connection are Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), Goal 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), Goal 13 (Climate Action), Goal 14 (Life Below Water), and Goal 15, (Life on Land).


The UN system, together with partners, is working to help accelerate climate action and assist countries in limiting climate change and to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. From renewable energy to food security, to jobs and safe water, the UN is promoting a more sustainable and prosperous world for everyone.

The Climate Action Summit, convened in 2019, brought together representatives of governments, businesses and civil society that resulted in an array of initiatives to further climate action. These initiatives, comprised of coalitions of participants from the public and private sectors, are going forward and are producing results.

At COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015, Parties to the UNFCCC reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future. The central aim of the Paris Agreement is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Eucalyptus plant taking root on the sand dunes near Lompoul, Senegal.

Sustainable Development: 2020 and Beyond

The year 2020 marked the start of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It is a critical period to advance a shared vision and accelerate responses to the world's gravest challenges – from eliminating poverty and hunger to reversing climate change. Yet, in only a brief period of time, the precipitous spread of the novel coronavirus turned a public health emergency into one of the worst international crises of our lifetimes, changing the world as we know it. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 presents an overview of progress towards the SDGs before the pandemic started, but it also looks at some of the devastating initial impacts of COVID-19 on specific Goals and targets. The report was prepared by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in collaboration with over 200 experts from more than 40 international agencies, using the latest available data and estimates.

Five years since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, the 2020 Report notes that progress had been made in some areas, such as improving maternal and child health, expanding access to electricity and increasing women’s representation in government. Yet even these advances were offset elsewhere by growing food insecurity, deterioration of the natural environment, and persistent and pervasive inequalities.

Now, in only a short period of time, the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented crisis, causing further disruption to SDG progress, with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable affected the most.

Using the latest data and estimates, this annual stocktaking report on progress across the 17 Goals shows that it is the poorest and most vulnerable – including children, older persons, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees – who are being hit the hardest by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women are also bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects.

Among the key findings:

  • An estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Lost incomes, limited social protection and rising prices mean even those who were previously secure could find themselves at risk of poverty and hunger.
  • Underemployment and unemployment due to the crisis mean some 1.6 billion already vulnerable workers in the informal economy – half the global workforce – may be significantly affected, with their incomes estimated to have fallen by 60 per cent in the first month of the crisis.
  • The more than one billion slum dwellers worldwide are acutely at risk from the effects of COVID-19, suffering from a lack of adequate housing, no running water at home, shared toilets, little or no waste management systems, overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal health care facilities.
  • Women and children are also among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects. Disruption to health and vaccination services and limited access to diet and nutrition services have the potential to cause hundreds of thousands of additional under-5 deaths and tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths in 2020. Many countries have seen a surge in reports of domestic violence against women and children.
  • School closures have kept 90 per cent of students worldwide (1.57 billion) out of school and caused over 370 million children to miss out on school meals they depend on. Lack of access to computers and the internet at home means remote learning is out of reach of many. About 70 countries reported moderate to severe disruptions or a total suspension of childhood vaccination services during March and April of 2020.
  • As more families fall into extreme poverty, children in poor and disadvantaged communities are at much greater risk of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking. In fact, the global gains in reducing child labour are likely to be reversed for the first time in 20 years. The report also shows that climate change is still occurring much faster than anticipated. The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade of 2010 to 2019. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is accelerating; land degradation continues; massive numbers of species are at risk of extinction; and unsustainable consumption and production patterns remain pervasive.

The report also shows that climate change is still occurring much faster than anticipated. The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade of 2010 to 2019. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is accelerating; land degradation continues; massive numbers of species are at risk of extinction; and unsustainable consumption and production patterns remain pervasive.