The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Government officials from 178 countries and between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals from governments, NGOs and the media participated in this event to discuss solutions for global problems such as poverty, war or the growing gap between industrialised and developing countries. In the centre was also the question of how to relieve the global environmental system through the introduction to the paradigm of sustainable development. It emphasises that economic and social progress depends critically on the preservation of the natural resource base with effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Parallel to the formal UN conference, an informal counter-conference, the "Global Forum" also occurred in Rio, organised by hundreds of NGOs. This event surely was the more colourful and inspirational, more popular and interesting event - at least in the perception of the world media. The Global Forum produced dozens of resolutions and conventions, obviously much closer related to the need for a change to real sustainable development. It applied tremendous pressure on the bureaucratic and stiff UN conference to move further and faster.

The UN summit focused on three broad concepts: An "Earth Charter" covering a number of principles aiming at development and the protection of the environment, was the first focus for discussion. Secondly, "Agenda 21" was intended to be a global action plan for sustainable development; thirdly, developing countries demanded a substantial increase in new funding from developed countries to contribute to sustainable development in the South.

Negotiations attempted to reach agreements at least on the broad outlines of several conventions covering climate change, biological diversity, forests etc. Especially representatives from developing countries emphasised at Rio the importance of their right to economic development, which goes together with growing impacts on the environment, so that industrialised countries have a special responsibility for the realisation of the global environmental goals stated at UNCED.

Despite the positive effects in the aftermath and the results of UNCED there were many areas the governments refused or proved to be unable to address properly. When progress was assessed at Rio + 5 (New York, 1997) a number of gaps were identified, particularly with regard to social equity and poverty. This was largely reflected by falling levels of official development assistance (ODA) and growing international debt, along with failures to improve: technology transfer; capacity building for participation and development; institutional co-ordination; and reduce excessive levels of production and consumption. The review meeting called for the ratification, reinforcement and stronger implementation of the growing number of international agreements and conventions which refer to environment and development.

The years after UNCED/Rio have seen a series of global UN conferences dealing with action plans for human development. While UNCED delivered an agenda for sustainable development, governments met in 1994 for the Cairo Conference on Population and Development; in 1995 for the Copenhagen Social Development Summit and the Beijing Conference on Women and Development; in 1996 the Istanbul conference on Human Settlements and the Food Summit in Rome. In addition, there have been many agreements covering climate, biodiversity, desertification, access to information, persistent organic pollutants (POP) etc.

It is apparent that governments have not been implementing the plans for action UNCED and the following conferences and agreements have (or should have) produced. As the world faces a dangerous and uncertain ecological future, governments are lacking true commitment to the sustainable development agenda.

Read more about the concrete results of UNCED.




Effects of Globalisation on Sustainable Development after UNCED - an Analysis of the UNCED Process; by Martin Khor, Director of Third World Network ]

Earth Negotiations Bulletin's daily coverage of the UNCED 1992 ]


L A S T  U P D A T E D   18-jul-03