Volume 16, No.06 - June 2012

Feature articles

Rio+20: from environment to sustainable development


To grasp the background and stakes of Rio+20, it is useful to have a look at the Stockholm-to-Rio continuum of the Conferences, and to go through some key milestones in the long march that gave birth to international agreements on sustainable development. How did we move from Environment to Sustainable Development, what are the consequences of this move, and where are we going now?

1972 – Principles and Institutions

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment  held from 5–16 June in Stockholm, Sweden, was the first major international meeting addressing environmental issues in the context of human development.  The Conference adopted a Declaration of 26 Principles. Principle 5 stated that “non-renewable resources of the Earth must be employed in such a way as to guard against the danger of their future exhaustion and to ensure that benefits from such employment are shared by all mankind.” The Meeting adopted an «Action Plan for the Human Environment” and led to the foundation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as well as to the establishment of Environment departments. The world counted barely 10 ministries of environment in 1972 and ten times more a decade later.  Two Heads of Government have attended the Conference: Prime Ministers Olof Palme of Sweden and Indira Gandhi of India, who famously declared that “Poverty is the worst form of pollution.” 

1987 – Agenda for Action and Sustainable Development

The World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norwegian Premier Gro Harlem Brundtland, was convened by the UN General Assembly in 1983 to formulate a long-term agenda for action. Its final report, entitled Our Common Future, introduced and popularized the concept of sustainable development to meet today’s needs without threatening the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The Brundtland Report stressed that “a world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes.”

1992 – The Earth Summit

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held from 3-14 June in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  It culminated in its three last days with the Earth Summit attended by 108 Heads of State and Government.  The Summit adopted a set of 27 principles entitled the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Principle 15 called for a precautionary approach to protect the environment under uncertainty.  The Summit also adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive action plan to implement sustainable development. Significant binding Conventions on climate change (UNFCCC) and biodiversity (CBD) were open to signature in Rio and later came into force for the States who ratified them. The Summit called for the negotiation of a convention on desertification and drought, adopted a non-binding Statement of Forest Principles and recommended that the General Assembly establishes a Commission on Sustainable Development to monitor post-UNCED progress. Nearly 20,000 people took part in the Conference and Summit, including various economic and social sectors of civil society, giving birth to a new multi-stakeholder implementation paradigm. The Summit had enormous media coverage.

1994-1997 – Follow-up Conferences

In 1994 in Barbados, a global conference attended by 125 States and territories (46 of which were small island developing States and territories) adopted the United Nations Programme of Action on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, also called Barbados Programme of Action. A special session of the UN General Assembly called Earth Summit +5 was held in New York from 23 to 27 June 1997 to appraise implementation of Agenda 21, and other commitments made at the Earth Summit and adopted a “Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21.” Based upon the Earth Summit Forests Principles and a chapter of Agenda 21, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established in 2000 the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), a subsidiary body aimed at promoting “the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests and to strengthen long-term political commitment to this end”. 

2002 – Review and sectorial plans

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was held from 26 August to 4 September 2002, in Johannesburg (South Africa) to review the results of UNCED a decade later and reinvigorate the global commitment to sustainable development.  Attended by nearly one hundred world leaders, it adopted a Declaration and a Plan of Implementation including agreements on oceans and fisheries protection, sanitation, freshwater, energy and poverty.  The Johannesburg process also initiated a new type of voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives called “Partnerships for Sustainable Development.”  Some 300 such partnership agreements were launched during the Summit.  Participation of the civil society was also massive.

2005-2007 – Adoption of non binding instruments

An international meeting was held in Mauritius in 2005 to review the Barbados Programme of Action.  The 129 participating Member States unanimously adopted the “Mauritius Strategy for the further implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States.” After years of intense negotiations, the 7th Session of the UN Forum on Forests adopted in 2007 the “Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests”, the first international instrument for sustainable forest management ever adopted by UN Member States. 

2012 – Rio+20 – Focus areas and voluntary commitments?

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Rio de Janeiro from 20 to 22 June 2012, aims at bringing about real change by setting a new development agenda and galvanizing progress towards a sustainable future — the Future We Want.  The Conference focuses on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.  The Conference will adopt an outcome document expected to notably highlight seven areas needing priority attention, including decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster preparedness. 

Following the strides made on poverty eradication through the Millennium Development Goals, Rio+20 is expected to agree to defining sustainable development goals that would mobilize the international community, promoting action and monitoring progress. At Rio+20, governments, major groups and other civil society sectors, including business and industry, are also expected to launch new voluntary commitments and initiatives for sustainable development which will be compiled in a registry of commitments as part of the legacy of the Conference.  More than 50,000 people are expected to participate to the Conference and over 500 side events are planned. 

For more information:

Euro zone debt crisis: a danger for the global economy


A report entitled «World Economic Situation and Prospects as of mid-2012» notes that despite some scattered signs of improvement in recent months, the global economic situation is still challenging. Projections are revised downwards as compared to forecasts presented in the WESP 2012 Report in January. Global employment remains the most pressing challenge. The report will be launched on 7 June.

Released by UN DESA’s Development Policy and Analysis Division (DPAD),  the WESP report notes that the debt crisis in the euro area (especially in Greece) remains the biggest threat to the world economy. An escalation could trigger severe turmoil in the financial markets and a sharp rise in global risk aversion, leading to a contraction of economic activity in developed countries.

Following a marked slowdown in 2011, WESP warns that global economic growth will likely remain tepid in 2012 with most regions expanding at a below-potential pace. A further sharp rise in energy prices may also stifle global development.

Four major weaknesses continue to conspire against robust economic recovery:

i) Deleveraging by banks, firms and households, which continues to restrain normal credit flows and consumer and investment demand;

ii) Unemployment remains high, a condition that is both cause and effect in preventing economic recovery;

iii) Fiscal austerity responses to rising public debts deter economic growth and make a return to debt sustainability all the more difficult; and

iv) Bank exposures to sovereign debt perpetuate fragility in the financial sector, which in turn spurs continued deleveraging.

Even if further deepening and spreading of the debt crisis in the euro area can be avoided, economic activity in the European Union is expected to stagnate in 2012.

The jobs crisis continues

Global employment remains the most pressing challenge. Employment-to-population ratios remain below 2007 levels, except in Brazil, China and Germany.

In the United States, despite recent improvements, the unemployment rate remains well above pre-crisis levels, at over 8 per cent. In the euro area, it increased to a historic high of 10.9 per cent in March 2012. It reached alarming heights in the debt-ridden euro area countries: in Spain it had jumped to 24.1 per cent in March 2012 (up 8.6 in 2007), 21.7 per cent in Greece (up from 8), 13.5 in Portugal (up from 8.5), and 14.5 per cent in Ireland (up from 5). In developing countries, in contrast, employment rebounded more strongly.

Policy recommendations

Breaking out of the vicious cycle of continued deleveraging, rising unemployment, fiscal austerity and financial sector fragility requires more concerted and more coherent efforts on several fronts of national and international policy making.

On the fiscal front, it is essential to change course in fiscal policy in developed economies and shift the focus from short-term consolidation to robust economic growth with medium- to long-run fiscal sustainability. Premature fiscal austerity carry the risk of creating a vicious downward spiral, with enormous economic and social costs.

Fiscal austerity has already pushed many European countries further into recession. This is particularly relevant for the debt-ridden euro area economies. Euro area countries have fallen back into recession, following fiscal retrenchment over the past two years. Clearly, the efforts at regaining debt sustainability through fiscal austerity are backfiring in low growth and high unemployment.

For more information: (The report details economic forecast region by region)

“The old model is broken. We need to create a new one”

“Worldwide, more than 400 million new jobs will be needed over the next decade. That means that policy-makers must get serious, now, about generating decent employment,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the high-level thematic debate on The State of the World Economy and Finance and its Impact on Development, held on 17 May. “It is time to recognize that human capital and natural capital are every bit as important as financial capital,” he added.

The event lasted two days and was organised around four thematic roundtable discussions, each focusing on different issues, such as combating unemployment, debt sustainability and managing inflation, improving trade and investment, and increasing transparency and predictability in the financial sector. It was organised to attract heads of governments, finance ministers, as well as heads of organizations, regional and central banks, so that they can share experience and offer views on ways to resolve the economic crisis and improve global financial situation. Set up as an informal setting, the high-level debate encouraged a lively exchange of differing ideas on global economic and financial issues. “Let us face the facts: the old model is broken. We need to create a new one – a new model for dynamic growth,” said Ban Ki-moon.

In his opening statement, Mr. Ban particularly emphasised the importance of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to establish sustainable development goals that build on the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, and especially the framework for  more sustainable consumption and production. “This is the moment for world leaders to rise above their differences; the moment to show political will and true global leadership. The choice is between the crises of yesterday – or the opportunities of tomorrow. This is a once-in-a-generation moment.  Let us seize it.”, said Mr. Ban in conclusion of his remarks.

Among the speakers at the event were the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso; the President of Columbia University, Joseph Stiglitz; Paul Volcker, the former head of the United States Federal Reserve; Ahmad Mohamed Ali Al-Madani, President, Islamic Development Bank;  Haruhiko Kuroda, President, Asia Development Bank, and  the Deputy Secretary-General of OECD, Rintaro Tamaki.

For more information: