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The relationship between economic development and environmental degradation was first placed on the international agenda in 1972, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. After the Conference, Governments set up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which today continues to act as a global catalyst for action to protect the environment. Little, however, was done in the succeeding years to integrate environmental concerns into national economic planning and decision-making. Overall, the environment continued to deteriorate, and such problems as ozone depletion, global warming and water pollution grew more serious, while the destruction of natural resources accelerated at an alarming rate.

By 1983, when the UN set up the World Commission on Environment and Development, environmental degradation, which had been seen as a side effect of industrial wealth with only a limited impact, was understood to be a matter of survival for developing nations. Led by Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the Commission put forward the concept of sustainable development as an alternative approach to one simply based on economic growth — one “which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

After considering the 1987 Brundtland report, the UN General Assembly called for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The primary goals of the Summit were to come to an understanding of “development” that would support socio-economic development and prevent the continued deterioration of the environment, and to lay a foundation for a global partnership between the developing and the more industrialized countries, based on mutual needs and common interests, that would ensure a healthy future for the planet.

The Earth Summit Agreements

In Rio, Governments — 108 represented by heads of State or Government — adopted three major agreements aimed at changing the traditional approach to development:

  • Agenda 21 — a comprehensive programme of action for global action in all areas of sustainable development;

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development — a series of principles defining the rights and responsibilities of States;

  • The Statement of Forest Principles — a set of principles to underlie the sustainable management of forests worldwide.

In addition, two legally binding Conventions aimed at preventing global climate change and the eradication of the diversity of biological species were opened for signature at the Summit, giving high profile to these efforts:

  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


  • The Convention on Biological Diversity

Agenda 21 addresses today’s pressing problems and aims to prepare the world for the challenges of the next century. It contains detailed proposals for action in social and economic areas (such as combating poverty, changing patterns of production and consumption and addressing demographic dynamics), and for conserving and managing the natural resources that are the basis for life — protecting the atmosphere, oceans and biodiversity; preventing deforestation; and promoting sustainable agriculture, for example.

Governments agreed that the integration of environment and development concerns will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved standards for all, better protected and better managed ecosystems and a safer and a more prosperous future. “No nation can achieve this on its own. Together we can — in a global partnership for sustainable development”, states the preamble.

The programme of action also recommends ways to strengthen the part played by major groups — women, trade unions, farmers, children and young people, indigenous peoples, the scientific community, local authorities, business, industry and non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) — in achieving sustainable development.

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Developmentsupports Agenda 21 by defining the rights and responsibilities of States regarding these issues. Among its principles:

  • That human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature;

  • That scientific uncertainty should not delay measures to prevent environmental degradation where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage;

  • That States have a sovereign right to exploit their own resources but not to cause damage to the environment of other States;

  • That eradicating poverty and reducing disparities in worldwide standards of living are “indispensable” for sustainable development;

  • That the full participation of women is essential for achieving sustainable development; and

  • That the developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.

The Statement of Forest Principles, the non–legally binding statement of principles for the sustainable management of forests, was the first global consensus reached on forests. Among its provisions:

  • That all countries, notably developed countries, should make an effort to “green the world” through reforestation and forest conservation;

  • That States have a right to develop forests according to their socio-economic needs, in keeping with national sustainable development policies; and

  • That specific financial resources should be provided to develop programmes that encourage economic and social substitution policies.

At the Summit, the UN was also called on to negotiate an international legal agreement on desertification, to hold talks on preventing the depletion of certain fish stocks, to devise a programme of action for the sustainable development of small island developing States and to establish mechanisms for ensuring the implementation of the Rio accords.


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© Copyright United Nations 23 May 1997 | Department of Public Information | Revised 23 May 1997