From Stockholm via Rio to Johannesburg: Thirty Years of International Action on Environment and Sustainable Development

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 7. February 2011 - 23:27
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Papers presented at the 5th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
19-21 October 2001, Hluboka nad Vltavou, Czech Republic

From Stockholm via Rio to Johannesburg:
Thirty Years of International Action on Environment and Sustainable Development

Arthur Lyon Dahl*
Geneva, Switzerland

While the title might lead you to expect some sort of a travelogue between continents, this is really the story of a voyage of international consultation and action on one of the critical global challenges facing human society: learning to live within the limits of our planetary environment. The aim of this conference is to identify critical issues that need to be addressed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development next September in Johannesburg. An historical perspective can help us to see what goals were set, what efforts have already been made, and what has not succeeded, or perhaps been overlooked.

The conservation movement was the precursor of the environmental movement, starting a hundred years ago, and becoming international after 1945 with the founding of IUCN - The World Conservation Union. In the 1960s, scientific evidence began to accumulate that human impacts on the environment were becoming regional and even global in scale, and could even threaten the life support systems of the planet. DDT, the wonder pesticide that helped to conquer malaria and other insect-borne diseases, was found to threaten birds and other wildlife. Even humans were found to have a body-burden of dangerous chemicals. Pollution became more than a local concern. The global scientific community became involved with the formation of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) of the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1969. The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 hit the headlines in America, and the first Earth Day was held in 1970.

Global intergovernmental action began with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, which produced the Stockholm Declaration, and an action plan with over 100 recommendations on Environmental Assessment (Earthwatch), Environmental Management, and Support Measures, that led to the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme. A global forum of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) paralleled the conference, and the Baha'is emphasized the link between environment and human values. The Stockholm slogan was "Only One Earth". Environmental debate centred around the Club of Rome report on the Limits to Growth, and talk of ecodevelopment (the precursor of sustainable development). The principal worries were about oil pollution and heavy metals, nuclear war, and marine mammals (especially whales). One of the major accomplishments following Stockholm was the establishment of Environment Ministries in most governments, but they have usually been marginalized from real centres of power, and under-resourced. There was little real impact on economic issues or development.

Internationally, there were important developments in environmental legislation through conventions, both at the global level and regionally through such programmes as the UNEP Regional Seas. But after 20 years it was clear that broader arrangements were needed to integrate environmental concerns into the development process. Rapid deforestation in the tropics led to growing concerns for biodiversity; drought in the Sahel attracted attention to desertification; the ozone hole in the Antarctic stratosphere signalled the global impacts of human pollution; and the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raised worries about global warming and sea level rise. The human population was exploding, and so was consumption in the wealthiest countries. The environment continued to degrade. The Brundtland Commission in 1987 called for more sustainable development.

Thus twenty years after Stockholm, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, with the same Secretary-General, Maurice Strong, as the Stockholm Conference. Its high level segment, the Earth Summit, assembled over 100 heads of state and government to adopt the Rio Declaration and an action plan of 40 chapters called Agenda 21, as well as forest principles. Conventions on Biological Diversity and Climate Change were also signed in Rio. The Global Forum of NGOs attracted over 10,000 people. Everyone planned to achieve sustainable development. Still, Rio did not achieve all its objectives. The forest principles replaced a hoped for Forest Convention, and the Rio Principles a planned Earth Charter. The implementation of Agenda 21 was costed by the secretariat at $120 billion, although we realistically hoped for commitments of $20 billion. In fact, only $7 billion were pledged in Rio, and international support for environmental action declined considerably after the conference as economic issues took priority.

The Rio Earth Summit was a peak in the environmental movement, with high expectations that were generally disappointed. Significant progress was made after Rio in the UN system, adapting its programmes to the newly agreed priorities. The major transformation was among NGOs and in civil society, both globally and locally, with many communities adopting local Agenda 21s. In the private sector, leading multinationals led significant improvements in their environmental performance, helped by the International Standards Organization (ISO 14000) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. In the UN, the Commission on Sustainable Development was established to follow up the Rio agreements, and it has helped governments to adopt such things as indicators of sustainable development.

New environmental issues have emerged since Rio. Rapid scientific advance has made genetic engineering possible, with developments in biotechnology such as cloning animals and humans becoming possible. On the pollution front, the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have been shown to disrupt the endocrine and other hormonal systems. Invasive species have hit the headlines. Repeated record high temperatures year after year have pushed the scientific community to acknowledge a clear human impact on the climate system that threatens major problems in the years ahead. The collapse of coral reef ecosystems around the world from the combined effects of pollution, overfishing, direct damage and global warming signalled significant planetary human impacts at the ecosystem level. Progress was also made, with new international agreements on desertification, POPs, biosafety, the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas reductions, and ocean fisheries, but implementation has been difficult. The information revolution has united the world as never before into one reactive system. Globalization itself has become a major issue. The UNEP Global Environment Outlook 2000 report showed that most environmental trends were still negative, and human vulnerability to environmental damage was increasing.

The United Nations has therefore planned for a Rio +10 conference, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September 2002. The participatory preparatory process for the conference is now under way, with regional preparatory meetings and widespread stakeholder consultation this year, followed by a series of preparatory committee meetings in January to May 2002. No one wants to renegotiate Agenda 21, but everyone is asking what else needs to be done to turn the world around. It looks as though the world population will stabilize in this century, but not before a further increase that will seriously stress resource capacities in many regions. World extremes of wealth and poverty have increased, and the social stresses from such extreme differences are now erupting into spreading violence and terrorism. The AIDS epidemic, threats of biological and chemical attack, and the obvious vulnerability of modern technological society have undermined any sense of security.

This then sets the stage for our little conference. What has been missing in the approaches of the past thirty years? What more can be discussed and agreed in Johannesburg so that this summit is not just another disappointment? Since the big failures have been in implementation, reflecting a lack of political will at the governmental level, and a similar reluctance to change or sacrifice among the wealthy and powerful at an individual level, we decided to focus our attention on the interrelated issues of knowledge, values and education for sustainable development. How can our scientific understanding, which is certainly sufficient for action, be used to change peoples' thinking and behaviour? What roles can religion and other forms of spirituality play in changing peoples' values and motivation? How do we educate the next generation to live more sustainably? How should these interact? What transformation is required to facilitate the evolution of a new sustainable and humane society?

It has been very hard for governments to agree on the issues and themes for the conference. South Africa would like to focus on poverty, which is surely a priority, but what should be done about it? In general, there has been a lack of new ideas and approaches. There is a vacuum waiting to be filled, so good ideas can go far. We hope that the outcomes of our creative thinking here can be fed into the preparatory processes for the Johannesburg Summit, in which some of us are directly involved. The International Environment Forum also plans to hold its next conference in Johannesburg as part of the NGO forum, and will draw on the results of this meeting. We have tried for a small but diverse participation, as richness comes from diversity. Each one is important. We have a chance, in our small way, to do something significant. Let us go to work.

(* The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.)

Last updated 17 October 2001