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United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the "Earth Summit," was held at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 3-14 June 1992. This global conference, held on the 20th anniversary of the first international Conference on the Human Environment, (Stockholm, 1972), brought together policy makers, diplomats, scientists, media personnel and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives from 179 countries in a massive effort to reconcile the impact of human socio-economic activities on the environment and vice versa. A simultaneous "Global NGO Forum" was also held in Rio de Janeiro, which was attended by an unprecedented number of representatives from NGOs outlining their own vision of the future environmental and socio-economic/developmental state of the world.

The 1972 UN Stockholm Conference focused international attention on environmental issues, especially those relating to environmental degradation and "transboundary pollution." The last concept was particularly important, as it highlighted the fact that pollution does not recognize political or geographical boundaries, but affects countries, regions and people beyond its point of origin. Over the decades following Stockholm, this concept was broadened to encompass environmental issues that are truly transnational in scope, requiring concerted action by all countries and all regions of the world in a universal manner in order to deal with them effectively. Such important global environmental problems include, for example, all kinds of pollution, climate change, the depletion of the ozone layer, the use and management of oceans and fresh water resources, excessive deforestation, desertification and land degradation, hazardous waste and depleting biological diversity.

In the years that followed, it also came to be recognized that regional or local environmental problems, such as extensive urbanization, deforestation, desertification, and general natural resource scarcity, can spread to pose serious repercussions for broader international security. For example, they undermine the economic base and social fabric of weak and poor countries, generate or exacerbate social tensions and conflicts and stimulate greater flows of refugees. Environmental degradation in diverse parts of the developing as well as the developed world can in this way affect the political, economic and social interests of the world as a whole.

International recognition of the fact that environmental protection and natural resources management must be integrated with socio-economic issues of poverty and underdevelopment culminated in the 1992 Earth Summit. This idea has been captured in the definition of "sustainable development," as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This concept was designed to meet the requirements of both the supporters of economic development as well as of those concerned primarily with environmental conservation.

The Earth Summit thus made history by bringing global attention to the understanding, new at the time, that the planet's environmental problems were intimately linked to economic conditions and problems of social justice. It showed that social, environmental and economic needs must be met in balance with each other for sustainable outcomes in the long term. It showed that if people are poor, and national economies are weak, the environment suffers; if the environment is abused and resources are over consumed, people suffer and economies decline. The conference also pointed out that the smallest local actions or decisions, good or bad, have potential worldwide repercussions.

The Rio de Janeiro gathering outlined the way that various social, economic and environmental factors are interdependent and change together. It identified the critical elements of change, showing that success in one area requires action in the others in order to continue over time. The Summit's primary aim was to produce an extended agenda and a new plan for international action on environmental and developmental issues that would help guide international cooperation and policy development into the next century.

UNCED proclaimed the concept of sustainable development as a workable objective for everyone around the world, whether at the local, national, regional or international level. It recognized that integrating and balancing economic, social and environmental concerns in meeting our needs is vital to continue human life on the planet, and that such an integrated approach is achievable if we put our heads and hands together. It further recognized that achieving this kind of integration and balance between economic, social and environmental dimensions would require new ways of looking at how we produce and consume, how we live, how we work, how we get along with each other, and how we make decisions. The concept was revolutionary and like all original ideas it started a lively debate among governments, and between governments and their citizens on how to achieve sustainability.

A major achievement of UNCED was Agenda 21, a thorough and broad-ranging programme of actions demanding new ways of investing in our future to reach global sustainable development in the 21st century. Its recommendations ranged from new ways to educate, to new ways to care for natural resources, and new ways to participate in designing a sustainable economy. The overall ambition of Agenda 21 was breathtaking, for its goal was nothing less than to make a safe and just world in which all life has dignity and is celebrated.

Other UNCED outcomes:

- The Rio Declaration: A set of 27 universally-applicable Principles to help guide international action on the basis of environmental and economic responsibility.

- The Framework Convention on Climate Change: A legally-binding agreement, signed by 154 governments at the Summit in Rio, its ultimate objective is the "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (man-made) interference with the climate system."

- The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): A legally-binding agreement, that has been signed so far by 168 countries, It represents a dramatic step forward in the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

- The Statement of Forest Principles: a set of 15 non-legally binding Principles governing national and international policy-making for the protection and a more sustainable management and use of global forest resources. These Principles are extremely significant since they represent the first major international consensus on better use and conservation of all kinds of forests.

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24 August 2006