United Nations Earth Summit (1992)

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United Nations Earth Summit (1992)

For 12 days in June 1992, more than 35,000 environmental activists, politicians, and business representatives, along with 9,000 journalists, 25,000 troops, and uncounted vendors, taxi drivers, and assorted others converged on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Known as the Earth Summit, this was the largest environmental conference in history; in fact, it was probably the largest non-religious meeting ever held. Like a three-ring environmental circus, this conference brought together everyone from pin-striped diplomats to activists in bluejeans and indigenous Amazonian people in full ceremonial regalia. One cannot say yet whether the conventions and treaties discussed at this summit meeting will be effective, but they have the potential to make this the most important environmental meeting ever held.

The first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment met in Stockholm in 1972, exactly 20 years before the Rio de Janeiro meeting. Called by the industrialized nations of Western Europe primarily to discuss their worries about transboundary air pollution , the Stockholm conference had little input from less developed countries and almost no representation from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some major accomplishments came out of this conference, however, including the United Nations Environment Programme , the Global Environmental Monitoring System, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the World Heritage Biosphere Reserve Program, which identifies particularly valuable areas of biological diversity. A companion book to the Stockholm Conference entitled Only One Earth was written by René Dubos and Barbara Ward.

In 1983 the United Nations established an independent commission to address the issues raised at the Stockholm conference and to propose new strategies for global environmental protection. Chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland , the commission spent four years in hearings and deliberations. A significantly greater voice for the developing world was heard as it became apparent that environmental problems affected the poor more than the rich. The commission's final report, published in 1987 as Our Common Future , is notable for coining the term "sustainable development " and for linking environmental problems to social and economic systems.

In 1990 preparations for the Earth Summit began. Maurice Strong, the Canadian environmentalist who chaired the Stockholm conference, was chosen to lead once again. A series of four working meetings called PrepComs were scheduled to work out detailed agendas and agreements to be ratified in Rio de Janeiro. The first PrepCom met in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 1990. The second and third meetings were in Geneva, Switzerland, in March and August 1991. The fourth and final PrepCom convened in New York City, in March 1992. Twenty-one issues were negotiated at these conferences including biodiversity , climate change, deforestation , environmental health , marine resources, ozone , poverty, toxic wastes, and urban environments. Notably, population crisis was barely mentioned in the documents because of opposition by religious groups.

Intense lobbying and jockeying for power marked the two-year PrepCom process. As the date for the Rio de Janeiro conference neared, it appeared that several significant treaties would be ratified in time for presentation to the world community. Among these were treaties on climate change, biological diversity, forests, and a general Earth Charter , which would be an environmental bill of rights for all people. A comprehensive 400-page document called Agenda 21 presented a practical action plan spelling out policies, laws, institutional arrangements, and financing to carry out the provisions of these and other treaties and conventions. Chairman Strong estimated that it would take $125 billion per year in aid to help the poorer nations of the world protect their environment.

In the end, however, the United States refused to accept much of the PrepCom work. During PrepCom IV in New York City, for instance, 139 nations voted for mandatory stabilization of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000, laying the groundwork for what promised to be the showcase treaty of the Earth Summit. Only the United States delegation opposed it, but after behind-the-scenes arm twisting and deal-making, the targets and compulsory aspects of the treaty were stripped away, leaving only a weak shell to take to Rio de Janeiro. Many environmentalists felt betrayed. Similarly, the United States, alone among the industrialized world, refused to sign the biodiversity treaty, the forest protection convention, or the promise to donate 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product to less developed countries for environmental protection. The nation's excuse was that these treaties were too restrictive for American businesses and might damage the American economy. The United States did, subsequently, sign the biodiversity treaty on June 4, 1993.

Many environmentalists went to Rio de Janeiro intending to denounce United States intransigence. Even Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly, head of the United States delegation, wrote a critical memo to his staff saying that the Bush administration was slow to engage crucial issues, late in assembling a delegation, and unwilling to devote sufficient resources to the meeting. Newsweek magazine entitled one article about the summit: "The Grinch of Rio," saying that to much of the world, the Bush administration represented the major obstacle to environmental protection.

Not all was lost at the Rio de Janeiro meeting, however. Important contacts were made and direct negotiations begun between delegates from many countries. Great strides were made in connecting poverty to environmental destruction. Issues such as sustainable development and justice had a prominent place on the negotiating table for the first time. Furthermore, this meeting provided a unique forum for discussing the disparity between the rich industrialized northern nations and the poor, underdeveloped southern nations. Many bilateralnation to nationtreaties and understandings were reached.

Perhaps more important than the official events at the remote and heavily guarded conference center was the "shadow assembly," or Global Forum of NGOs, held in Flamingo Park along the beach front of Guanabara Bay. Eighteen hours a day, the park pulsed and buzzed as thousands of activists debated, protested, traded information, and built informal networks. In one tent, a large TV screen tracked nearly three dozen complex agreements being negotiated by official delegates at Rio Centrum. In other tents, mini-summits discussed alternative issues such as the role of women, youth, indigenous peoples , workers, and the poor. Specialized meetings focused on topics ranging from sustainable energy to endangered species . In contrast to Stockholm, where only a handful of citizen groups attended the meetings and almost all were from the developed world, more than 9,000 NGOs sent delegates to Rio de Janeiro. There were over 700 from Brazil alone. The contacts made in these informal meetings may prove to be the most valuable part of the Earth Summit.

[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]



Haas, P. M., et al. "Appraising the Earth Summit: How Should We Judge UNCED's Success?" Environment 34 (October 1992): 6.

Hildyard, N. "Green Dollars, Green Menace." The Ecologist 22 (May/June 1992): 8284.

Hinrichsen, D. "The Rocky Road to Rio." The Amicus Journal 14 (Winter 1992): 15.


French, H. After the Earth Summit: The Future of Environmental Governance. World Watch Paper 107. Washington, DC: World Watch Institute, 1992.

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United Nations Earth Summit (1992)