Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development

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Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development


The World Summit on Sustainable Development (or Earth Summit 2002, or Rio + 10) took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from August 26 through September 4, 2002. Despite a wide-ranging agenda that set out to tackle everything from poverty to climate change, its discernable achievements were scant, and the summit became notable mostly for the lack of consensus and lack of participation by the United States in aleading role.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Coming a decade after the first Earth Summit staged in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the successor summit at Johannesburg was seen as an opportunity to renew intergovernmental pledges to support sustainable development and counteract climate change.

The Rio de Janeiro conference had been unprecedented for a United Nations (UN) conference in terms of its size and breadth of concerns. Its key document,

the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)”—which set out to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases so as to counteract global warming—began the period of negotiation that culminated in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Nearly five years later, however, the targets as agreed at Kyoto were still not law, although Johannesburg came in the midst of the ratification process.

It was hoped, in the build up to Johannesburg, that ratification of Kyoto might be hastened at the summit. The European Union actively set out to increase its targets for emissions reduction for 2012 from 5.2% to 15%.

By no means was climate change the only thing on the agenda at Johannesburg, however. Topics for debate at the ten-day summit included everything from the need to improve sanitation in the developing world to world fish stock depletion. Delegates included representatives not just of governments, environmental groups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but businesses, too.

Impacts and Issues

From the outset, the 2002 Earth Summit was undermined by the decision of U.S. President George W. Bush not to attend the conference. His absence was compounded by the fact that the U.S. delegation vetoed virtually all proposals that involved either directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant new funds to sustainable development. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a brief appearance at the conference's end, but received a less than warm reception as he addressed the delegates.

Notwithstanding America's role, the summit reflected the growing sense that the U.N. was becoming a talking shop in the face of the global catastrophe threatened by climate change. Although the Kyoto Protocol had been signed nearly five years earlier, at the time its binding targets were still not ratified and the hope that proceedings in Johannesburg would inspire action were soon confounded. Its principle outcome—the Johannesburg Declaration—was yet another non-binding pledge. Climate change was listed as among the challenges the world faced in the declaration, but in vowing to fight against the worldwide conditions “that pose severe threats to the sustainable development of our people,” the declaration made mention of every issue from chronic hunger to terrorism, without the inclusion of global warming.

Another criticism of the summit was the invitation of a wide range of non-governmental stakeholders. This criticism was extended not just to environmentalists, interest groups, and lobbyists, but also to multinational corporations. According to author and activist Naomi Klein, this process, first set in place at Rio, allowed “for more participation from civil society than any previous UN conference, while at the same time it raised unprecedented amounts of corporate funds for the summit.” Such sponsorship had a price, asserted Klein, for bringing big business to the table it “pushed off” the prospect of greater regulation of their industries. It also undermined the integrity of the summit: the conference center was “chock-a-block with displays for BMW clean cars and billboards for De Beers diamonds” reported Klein. The summit's chief sponsor, Eskom, South Africa's national energy company, was preaching sustainability while simultaneously cutting off the power of 40,000 homes per month under its privatization program.


FRIENDS OF THE EARTH: International network of environmental groups founded in 1969, having members in 70 countries as of 2007. Noted in the early 2000s for The Big Ask, its campaign for a new climate-change law in the United Kingdom that would cut U.K. greenhouse emissions by 3% per year.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

GREENPEACE: Nonprofit environmental group formed in 1971, originally to protest nuclear testing and whaling. The group remains active, now addressing a wide range of issues, including climate change.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Perhaps the most significant achievement of the summit was the target of halving the 1.2 billion people lacking access to safe water and sanitation. Other achievements included targets for reversing the extinction of species and restoring fish stocks. Both were simultaneously hailed by governments as crowning achievements, and criticized by environmental groups for being weak and unenforceable. Friends of the Earth described the summit as the “worst political sellout” in decades, while Greenpeace described the Johannesburg Declaration as “a disaster.”

See Also Kyoto Protocol; Sustainability.



Weiss, Thomas G., and Sam Daws, eds. The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Clarke, Tom. “Wanted: Scientists for Sustainability.” Nature 418 (2002): 812-814.

“The Party's Over.” New Scientist 2, 359 (September 7, 2002).

Web Sites

Klein, Naomi. “The Summit that Couldn't Save Itself: Corporations Have Ensured that Real Regulation Is Off the Agenda.” The Guardian, September 4, 2002. <,,785719,00.html> (accessed December 2, 2002).

“Special Report: World Summit 2002.” The Guardian.<,,757397,00.html> (accessed December 2, 2007).

James Corbett

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