Links to UN bodies

Links to site map

Main Links

    [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Study 1

Implementation of Agenda 21 and progress in implementation of the Rio principles

This study aims to provide an assessment of the progress and gaps made in the implementation of some of the Rio outcomes, specifically, Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles.

Twenty years after the Rio summit, there is a consensus that while the concepts, ideas and tools of sustainable development have progressively permeated decision-making and ways of thinking, overall progress towards sustainable development at the global level has been insufficient both in regard of the objectives stated in Rio and with respect to the imperative for action dictated by the rapid closing of planetary ecosystem limits, the most visible of which is greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Review of Implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles: Synthesis Report, January 2012, is available here.

Agenda 21

When it was adopted in 1992 at the earth Summit, Agenda 21 - "a programme of action for sustainable development worldwide" as stated in its Introduction, had the ambition of being "a comprehensive blueprint for action to be taken globally, from now into the twenty-first century". The ambition was high, and so were the stated goals of the Agenda:

  • improving the living standards of those in need;
  • better manage and protect the ecosystem;
  • bring about a more prosperous future for all.

Various chapters of Agenda 21 have progressed at different paces. Information on progress and gaps in the implementation of SD commitments and decisions exist, but is often scattered. On some of the topics, global assessments have been undertaken by the international community (IPCC reports; Global Energy Assessment; IAASTD for agriculture). Academic institutions and think tanks often produce reports on specific sectors or topics (e.g. oceans, renewable energy, climate change). Short reviews of the state of implementation of various chapters or clusters of chapters of Agenda 21 were produced by the UN for the Commission on Sustainable Development sessions in 1997 ("Rio+5") and 2001 in preparation of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. These reviews, which were 5-10 pages long, were produced by the UN agencies in charge of specific chapters of Agenda 21 according to the arrangements agreed by the now extinct Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development. The UN Division for Sustainable Development regularly undertakes reviews of progress made under the clusters of issues in different CSD cycles, in the form of both issue-specific (sectoral) reports, so-called "overview reports", and trends reports. Since the Trends report produced by DSD for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 there seems to have been no fully-encompassing review exercise done by the Division for Sustainable Development.

This study aims to provide a systematic assessment of the progress and gaps made in the implementation of the programmes of action included in the 40 chapters of Agenda 21, The study will complement existing exercises of the types mentioned above, by:

  1. providing a basic but systematic coverage of issues in Agenda 21 (by opposition to a subset of issues under each CSD cluster), including state of progress based on statistical indicators, institutional changes since 1992, outstanding issues that were either not included in Agenda 21 or rose to major importance since then;
  2. assessing the main factors having caused progress or lack of progress on the different chapters, and suggesting alternative approaches to facilitate faster progress;
  3. and synthesizing the lessons from the detailed examination of the chapters of Agenda 21 and suggesting priorities for progress across the board;

The study will be based on desk review of the existing literature, including academic (peer-reviewed) literature, UN decisions and official reports, evaluations and assessments published by international think tanks and policy institutions, and others as relevant. Access the full report here.

Rio Principles

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted by 178 Member States in 1992 at the Earth Summit, was at the time perceived as a progressive statement by all nations that enshrined the recognition of the indivisibility of the fate of mankind from that of the Earth, and established sustainable development in international law. The Declaration, a compact set of 27 principles, promoted principles such as the centrality of human beings to the concerns of sustainable development (Principle 1); the primacy of poverty eradication (Principle 5); the importance of the environment for current and future generations and its equal footing with development (Principles 3 and 4); the special consideration given to developing countries (Principle 6); the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR, Principle 7). It also enshrined the two critical economic principles of polluter pays (Principle 16) and precautionary approach (Principle 15). It introduced principles relating to participation and the importance of specific groups for sustainable development (Principles 10, 20, 21, 22). Lastly, it requested Member states to put in place adequate legislative instruments to address environmental issues.

Implementation of the Rio Principles has not always been straightforward. Since Rio in 1992 some principles have had the limelight and have become or remained central tenets of multilateral discussions (e.g. Principle 7 on common but differentiated responsibilities, Principle 2 on national sovereignty over natural resources). Others have given rise to multilateral or national instruments (for examples Principle 14 on transfer of hazardous waste, Principle 17 on environmental impact assessments, Principle 10 on participation). Others have been only partially put in practice such as the precautionary approach and the polluter-pay principle. Whether such principles as Principle 5 ("All states and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty eradication") have been put into action as thoroughly as intended is a matter of judgment.

A review of the Rio principles was conducted by the UN Division for Sustainable Development for the 5th session of CSD in 1997 ("Rio+5"). Some of the principles have given rise to considerable amount of literature. While the underlying causes for the success of specific principles may be understood by experts in various fields of international law and sustainable development, a short and simple but all-encompassing summary seems to be missing. Yet, understanding why some of the principles have not succeeded in passing the test of inclusion in international and national law, or at least become the basis for accepted normal practices is critical to furthering sustainable development.

This study will provide a systematic assessment of the state of implementation of the 27 Rio Principles; based on this individual assessment, it will also provide a general assessment and distil some lessons for further progress. The study will be based on desk review of the existing literature, including academic (peer-reviewed) literature, UN decisions and official reports, evaluations and assessments published by international think tanks and policy institutions, and others as relevant. Access the full report here.