Setting the scene

The nations of the world came together in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)—dubbed the Earth Summit—to try to reach consensus on the best way to slow down, halt and eventually reverse ongoing environmental deterioration. The Summit represented the culmination of two decades of development in the study of environmental issues, initiated at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Stockholm was the first conference to draw worldwide public attention to the immensity of environmental problems, and because of that it has been credited with ushering in the modern era in environmental studies (Haas et al. 1992).

The immediate impact of the Stockholm conference was not sustained for long. Writing in 1972, the climatologist Wilfrid Bach expressed concern that public interest in environmental problems had peaked and was already waning. His concern appeared justified as the environmental movement declined in the remaining years of the decade, pushed out of the limelight in part by growing fears of the impact of the energy crisis. Membership in environmental organizations—such as the Sierra Club or the Wilderness Society—which had increased rapidly in the 1960s, declined slowly, and by the late 1970s the environment was seen by many as a dead issue (Smith 1992). In the 1980s, however, there was a remarkable resurgence of interest in environmental issues, particularly those involving the atmospheric environment. The interest was broad, embracing all levels of society, and held the attention of the general public, plus a wide spectrum of academic, government and public-interest groups.

Most of the issues were not entirely new. Some, such as acid rain, the enhanced greenhouse effect, atmospheric turbidity and ozone depletion, had their immediate roots in the environmental concerns of the 1960s, although the first two had already been recognized as potential problems in the nineteenth century. Drought and famine were problems of even longer standing. Contrasting with all of these was nuclear winter—a product of the Cold War—which remained an entirely theoretical problem, but potentially no less deadly because of that.

Diverse as these issues were, they had a number of features in common. They were, for example, global or at least hemispheric in magnitude, large scale compared to the local or regional environmental problems of earlier years. All involved human interference in the atmospheric component of the earth/atmosphere system, and this was perhaps the most important element they shared. They reflected society's ever-increasing ability to disrupt environmental systems on a large scale.

These issues are an integral part of the new environmentalism which has emerged in the early 1990s. It is characterized by a broad, global outlook, increased politicization—marked particularly by the emergence of the so-called Green Parties in Europe—and a growing environmental consciousness which takes the form of waste reduction, prudent use of resources and the development of environmentally safe products (Marcus and Rands 1992). It is also a much more aggresive environmentalism, with certain organizations—Green-peace and Earth First, for example—using direct action in addition to debate and discussion to draw attention to the issues (Smith 1992).

Another characteristic of this new environmentalism is a growing appreciation of the economic and political components in environmental issues, particularly as they apply to the problems arising out of the economic disparity between the rich and poor nations. The latter need economic development to combat the poverty, famine and disease that are endemic in many Third World countries, but do not have the capacity to deal with the environmental pressures which development brings. The situation is complicated by the perception among the developing nations that imposition of the environmental protection strategies proposed by the industrial nations is not only forcing them to pay for something they did not create, but is also likely to retard their development,

Development issues were included in the Stockholm conference in 1972, but they were clearly of secondary importance at that time, well behind all of the environmental issues discussed.

Table 1.1 Treaties signed at the world environment meetings in Rio de Janeiro—June 1992

United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)

The Rio Declaration 27 principles - key elements of the political agendas of both industrialized and devel-

Convention on Climate Change includes as an objective the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations, but no agreement on specific emission targets or dates.

Convention on Biodiversity goals include conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, plus fair

Statement of Forest Principles not a treaty, but a statement of 17 non-binding principles for the protection and sustainable development of all forests - tropical, temperate and boreal.

Agenda 21 attempts to embrace the entire environment and development agenda. Consists of four sections -social and economic dimensions, conservation and management of resources for development, strengthening the role of major groups, means of implementation - and forty chapters covering all aspects of the environment, including issues such as climate change, ozone depletion, transboundary air pollution, drought and desertification, all of which have a strong atmospheric element.

Nongovernmental organization (NGO) treaties and other documents

Earth Charter a short statement of eight principles for sustainable development intended to parallel the Rio

NGO cooperation and institution-building cluster includes treaties on technology, sharing of resources, poverty, communications, global decision making and proposals for NGO action.

Alternative economic issues cluster includes treaties on alternative economic models, trade, debt, con-

Major environmental issues cluster includes treaties on climate, forests, biodiversity, energy, oceans, toxic

Food production cluster includes treaties on sustainable agriculture, food security, fisheries.

Cross-sectorial issues cluster includes treaties on racism, militarism, women's issues, population, youth, environmental education, urbanization and indigenous peoples.

Source: Compiled from information in Parson et al. (1992)

Fifteen years later, the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development—commonly called the Brundtland Commission after its chairwoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland—firmly combined economy and environment through its promotion of 'sustainable development', a concept which required development to be both economically and environmentally sound so that the needs of the world's current population could be met without jeopardizing those of future generations. The Brundtland Commission also proposed a major international conference to deal with such issues. This led directly to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and its parallel conference of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—the Global Forum.

The theme of economically and environmentally sound development was carried through the Summit to the final Rio Declaration of global principles and to Agenda 21, the major document produced by the conference, and basically a blueprint for sustainable development into the twenty-first century. That theme also appeared in other documents signed at Rio, including a Framework Convention on Climate Change brought on by concern over global warming, a Biodiversity Convention which combined the preservation of natural biological diversity with sustainable development of biological resources, and a Statement of Forest Principles aimed at balancing the exploitation and conservation of forests. Discussions and subsequent agreements at the Global Forum included an equally wide range of concerns (see Table 1.1).

There can be no assurance that these efforts will be successful. Even if they are, it will be some time—probably decades—before the results become apparent, and success may have been limited already by the very nature of the various treaties and conventions. For example, both the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 were the result of compromise among some 150 nations. Attaining sufficient common ground to make this possible inevitably weakened the language and content of the documents, leaving them open to interpretation and therefore less likely to be effective (Pearce 1992b). The failure of the developed nations to commit new money to allow the proposals contained in the documents to go ahead is also a major concern (Pearce 1992a). Perhaps this lack of financial commitment is a reflection of the recessionary conditions of the early 1990s, but without future injections of funds from the developed nations, the necessary environmental strategies will not be implemented, and Third World economic growth will continue to be retarded (Miller 1992). Other documents are little more than statements of concern with no legal backing. The forestry agreement, for example, is particularly weak, largely as a result of the unwillingness of the developing nations to accept international monitoring and supervision of their forests (Pearce 1992a). The end product remains no more than a general statement acknowledging the need to balance the exploitation of the forests with their conservation. Similarly, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed only after much conflict among the participants, was much weaker than had been hoped—lacking even specific emission reduction targets and deadlines (Warrick 1993).

Faced with such obstructions to progress from the outset, the Rio Summit is unlikely to have much direct impact in the near future. When change does come it is unlikely to come through such wide-ranging international conferences where rhetoric often exceeds commitment. It is more likely to be achieved initially by way of issue-specific organizations, and the Earth Summit contributed to progress in that area by establishing a number of new institutions—the Sustainable Development Commission, for example—and new information networks. By bringing politicians, non-governmental organizations and a wide range of scientists together, and publicizing their activities by way of more than 8,000 journalists, the Summit also added momentum to the growing concern over global environmental issues, wiithout which future progress will not be possible.

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