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Products of the Earth Summit

by Kathy Sessions
[EPA Journal - April/June 1993]

The nearly 180 governments participating in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) adopted three new agreements by the consensus:

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development sets out 27 principles to guide the behavior of nations toward more environmentally sustainable patterns of development. The declaration, a delicate compromise between developing and industrialized countries which was tortuously crafted at preparatory meetings, was adopted in Rio without negotiation due to fears that further debate would jeopardize any agreement. UNCED Secretary General Maurice Strong and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali each praised the declaration as an important achievement, but called on states to negotiate a more international and legally progressive "Earth Charter" for adoption in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

  • States at UNCED also adopted a voluntary action plan called Agenda 21, so named because it is intended to provide an agenda for local, national, regional, and global action into the 21st century. UNCED Secretary General Maurice Strong called Agenda 21 "the most comprehensive, the most far-reaching and, if implemented the most effective program of international action ever sanctioned by the international community." Agenda 21 comprises hundreds of pages of recommended actions to address environmental problems and promote sustainable development. It also represents an experimental process of building consensus on a "global workplan" for the economic, social, and environmental tasks of the United Nations as they evolve over time.

  • The third official product of UNCED was a "non-legally binding authoritative statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation, and sustainable development of all types of forests." Negotiations on the forest statement, begun as negotiations for a legally binding convention on forests, were among the most difficult of the UNCED process. Many states and experts, dissatisfied with the end result, emerged from UNCED seeking further negotiations toward agreement on a framework convention on forests.

Two international conventions were presented and opened for signature at UNCED, each of which attracted signatures of representatives of more than 150 countries:

  • A Framework Convention on Climate Change requires signatories to take steps to reduce their emissions of gases believed to contribute to global warming, although no mandatory targets and timetables for such actions were set, largely at the insistence of U.S. negotiators. In Rio, then-President George Bush signed the climate change convention. On April 21, 1993, President Clinton pledged that the United States would reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000 and would take the lead in addressing global warming.

  • A Framework Convention on Biological Diversity prescribes steps for the protection and sustainable use of the world's diverse plant and animal species. Then-President Bush refused to sign the biodiversity convention, citing concerns about protection of intellectual property rights and the treaty's financing arrangements. On April 21, President Clinton reported that the Administration had worked out an interpretive statement addressing some business and environmental groups' concerns, and he announced that the United States would sign the biodiversity convention.