Countries Start Preparations for Rio + 20: Holistic Response Could Still Achieve Vision Set at Historic Earth Summit

17 May 2010

Countries Start Preparations for Rio + 20: Holistic Response Could Still Achieve Vision Set at Historic Earth Summit

17 May 2010
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Background Release

Countries Start Preparations for Rio + 20:  Holistic Response

Could Still Achieve Vision Set at Historic Earth Summit


Countries will open negotiations today on the road back to Rio, where, in 1992, countries agreed on the landmark Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development.  In 2012, countries will meet again in Rio de Janeiro to determine the next steps for achieving sustainable development — to manage and protect the ecosystem and bring about a more prosperous future for everyone.

The negotiations will be the first meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, will be held at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 17 to 19 May.

The 1992 meeting that took place in Rio de Janeiro:  the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) — also known as the Earth Summit — was far-sighted and unprecedented in terms of the scope of its concerns.

The Conference’s main concern was on everybody’s mind: how to rethink economic development in a way that will benefit the Earth and its inhabitants for generations to come.  How to stop the destruction of non-renewable natural resources and the pollution that was devastating the planet?

The Rio Summit meeting strongly reiterated a call for a change in unsustainable behaviours and warned the world that excessive consumption of resources was putting a stress on the environment.  They underlined the importance of “sustainable development”, a revolutionary concept crafted earlier by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.  A global plan of action for sustainable development was adopted.

The Rio Summit, in addition to Agenda 21 and its related conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification, has prompted a wide range of action and follow-up that includes the Commission on Sustainable Development, a Millennium Development Goal explicitly devoted to environmental sustainability, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 in Johannesburg with its own comprehensive action plan.  Still, the concept of “sustainable development” still remains too vague and misunderstood by a much too large part of the general public worldwide.

Renewing Political Commitment for Sustainable Development

The next two years leading to the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development presents an opportunity for the countries, civil society and the United Nations to address the implementation gaps and obstacles that still preclude full implementation of Agenda 21.

The overall objective of the 2012 Conference is to “secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development assessing the progress to date and the remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development and addressing new and emerging challenges”.  The focus will be on a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.  It will also tackle the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The Preparatory Committee meeting is taking place in a difficult context.  The world is facing unprecedented multifaceted crises:  climate change; food, water and energy supplies; financial and economic uncertainty; unemployment; unsustainable consumption patterns; disappearing species; overfishing; sanitation; and many more.

According to United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Sha Zukang, “our stopgap solutions in response to these crises, with short-term time frames and sector-based approaches, can no longer suffice in tackling the multiple crises.  Only sustainable development, with its inherent emphasis on interlinkages to address social, economic and environmental challenges in a balanced and integrated manner, can provide long-term and durable solutions to the crises.”

Although all countries are vulnerable to these crises, they differ widely in their ability to cope with the risks and shocks inherent in them.  Challenges have been exacerbated in developing countries by poverty, competition for scarce resources, the rapid pace of migration from rural to urban areas, and the resulting challenges to provide food, infrastructure and access to basic health, water and energy services.

This vulnerability was exposed most tragically in the recent earthquakes that hit impoverished nations.  Besides the loss of human lives, the development agenda was set back many years, additional pressures on the environment were generated, and the potential for other unanticipated consequences, such as involuntary migration, was enhanced.

Gaps and Challenges

Looking back at what happened over the past two decades, a report of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon found that progress has been slow so far in achieving internationally agreed goals.  Challenges remain in achieving the goals of the three pillars of sustainable development, namely economic growth, social development and environmental protection, particularly in the context of the current global crises.

These three pillars are at the core of sustainable development and it is important that they converge all together and be considered as one target.  They are interdependent.

The report under consideration acknowledges that although this has been the case for two of the pillars — the economic and social dimensions, to a certain extent — it is far from being the case with the environmental one.

Overall, the trends are mixed.  While progress has been made on the economic field and in the fight against poverty in some regions, the dividends have been unequally shared, many countries are not on track for achieving key Millennium Development Goals, and most of the environmental indicators have continued to deteriorate.  While economic growth has accelerated in some developing and emerging economies, such as in East Asian countries, it has remained slow in least developed countries, landlocked countries and many small island developing countries.

On the social front, it is observed that progress is uneven across countries and regions in terms of poverty reduction and health indicators.  According to the World Bank, only 45 countries are on track to meet the poverty reduction target.  The rest, including 75 per cent of African countries, and 10 out of 12 fragile States, are not.

The slowest progress was registered in the environmental pillar.  The report observes that per capita use of resources and fossil energy and the ensuing greenhouse gas emissions remained high in developed countries.  In fast-growing developing countries, rapid industrial growth is putting heavy pressure on the environment.

The Secretary-General’s report acknowledges that, though some progress has been achieved, it is important to assess that progress against the longer-term emerging challenges.  The main question is whether the development transition can be achieved — raising the standards of the poor, which will obviously require an increase in materials consumption — before crossing the critical threshold on the use of the planet natural resources.

Green Economy:  the Proposed Way Forward

The negotiations leading to Rio + 20 will grapple with how to move forward.  Many advocate that the way out of the current crises and the path to achieve sustainable development is to put green growth at the centre of economic strategies.  These strategies call for promoting economic growth and at the same time reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing inefficient use of natural resources, and maintaining biodiversity.

According to the Secretary-General’s report, some countries, such as Republic of Korea, have already adopted green growth strategies.  But the path towards green growth requires strong political will and leadership and it also requires educating the public and enabling it to support the new concept and change its ways of thinking and adopting new lifestyles.

It is undeniable that some of these strategies require heavy financial investments and represent a burden to developing countries at a time of economic and financial crisis.

Strengthening the Institutional Framework

The Secretary-General’s report stresses that a holistic response is needed from the international community with more unified and reinforced action and common strategies developed in order to move forward the global development agenda.

The report notes that gaps still remain as regards the fulfilment of national and international commitments and, while numerous institutions have been established to promote or monitor the integrated pursuit of sustainable development, many have not received adequate support.  Consequently, financial commitments did not yield the expected results and political commitments to addressing climate change, though high, did not translate into concrete actions and results.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki, then a 12-year-old Canadian girl, stated at the Earth Summit in her appeal to world leaders “losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market […] I am afraid to go out in the sun now because of the holes in the ozone.  I am afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it.  And now we hear about animals and plants going extinct every day — vanishing forever.  All this is happening before our eyes and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions.”

For further information or interviews, please contact Dan Shepard, Development Section, United Nations Department of Public Information, tel.:  1 212 963 9495; e-mail:; or Danielle Loff, Development Section, United Nations Department of Public Information, tel.:  1 212 963 3926; e-mail:

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.