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Taking the Earth Summit "from Agenda to Action"



To make sustainable development work, we must clarify our understanding of what it requires, and how it can be integrated into public policy and private decisions at every level, from local to global.

Article by Maurice Strong in the Ecodecision Magazine

Many dedicated organizations and individuals are committed to the Earth Summit's goal of sustainable development, including finding innovative ways to reduce pollution and use our natural resources more wisely. Indeed. some remarkable progress has been made. particularly at the local level, where much of the basic work must be done, But far too many governments, companies, institutions, communities and citizens have yet to make the choices and changes necessary to advance the mutually reinforcing goals of sustainable development.

That is why the "Rio+5" Campaign was launched and the "Rio+5" Forum was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from March 13 to 19, 1997. Rio+5 was coordinated by the Earth Council in partnership with a broadly representative group of other civil society organizations. The Earth Council is an international non-governmental organization established in San Jose, Costa Rica, as a result of the Earth Summit in 1992. The Earth Council promotes and advances the worldwide implementation of the Earth Summit agreements. We do this by raising public awareness of the issue of sustainable development, facilitating public participation in relevant decision-making processes, and building needed cooperation between governments and the important representatives of civil society, who must participate directly in all aspects of this effort.

The key goal of Rio +5 was to forge new alliances and set in motion new initiatives to move the sustainable development pledges of the 1992 Earth Summit From Agenda to Action. To that end, the Forum aimed to develop recommendations for regional and global governance of sustainable development to present to the United Nations' Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in April and to the subsequent Special session of the UN General Assembly in June 1997. Rio+5 also sought to establish operational values for a future Earth Charter, which should be submitted to the UN General Assembly before the year 2000. Rio+5 was specifically designed as an opportunity for civil society institutions and actors to provide input to the parallel review processes of the UN much the same way thousands of non-governmental organizations participated in the "peoples" summit, the Global Forum, during the United Nations "Earth Summit" in 1992.

Among others, the Earth Council was joined in in this extraordinary endeavour by the World Resources Institute, the Women's Environmental and Development Organization, the World Conservation Union, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the International Council of Scientific Unions, the Brazilian NGO Forum and the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development. Members of the National Councils for Sustainable Development from 66 nations, as well as some 450 representatives from business, industry. citizen groups, non-governmental organizations, philanthropies, international financial institutions and United Nations agencies also participated.

All of the organizations which took part in this effort share the fundamental concern that the world has failed to make sufficient progress towards achieving the vision of the Earth Summit: an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable global economy. The passage of nearly five years has witnessed a waning in the excitement and momentum initially generated by the Earth Summit. Through the Rio+5 Campaign and Forum, and in the period immediately following, the Earth Council will reinforce and revitalize commitment to the agreements reached at the Earth Summits as the issues that were raised in Rio and the challenges it addressed have not diminished.

However, five years is really too short a time to pronounce final judgement on the impact of the Earth Summit. Although progress has been disappointing in many respects, and there has been some "backsliding", many of the seeds which were planted in Rio have already borne fruit.

For example, five years after the Earth Summit, 103 governments had established national institutions responsible for integrating sustainable development concepts into domestic law and policy. Local Agenda21 programmes have now been established in some 1,600 cities and towns around the world. In many different ways, numerous nations and communities are making progress towards realizing the goals of the Earth Summit.

Five years after Rio, at the Rio+5 Forum, we were presented with an opportunity to pinpoint the obstacles which need to be overcome if the agreements reached at the Earth Summit are to be fulfilled and extended.

Today, the demographic, social and economic forces that drive unsustainable development remain dominant. Although the conventional approach to development has been highly successful at expanding economic activity, it has too proved to be a panacea for all of the world's people or for generating a sustainable future for the planet It has yet to benefit many countries. Although economic development remains at the top of most nations' political agenda, it has failed to reduce income differences or satisfy the basic needs of the world's poorest one billion people. Making a real difference in the lives of these people requires a revitalized commitment to Agenda 21 and the vision of Earth Summit -- a formidable challenge, yes, but still within reach.

If we can begin to focus our collective efforts on the next phase of work - "operationalizing" sustainable development, particularly at the level of civil society, we could envisage a very different world just ten years from now.

Achieving this vision will require the development and strengthening of indicators, tools. operational policies. business practices, institutional arrangements, public understanding and commitment. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. Science and technology organizations are generating more sustainable technologies, research institutes are providing important data and analyses, and business associations are adopting voluntary sustainability codes. Many cities have begun local environmental initiatives or embarked on ambitious planning processes to guide their future development. The best of these efforts are participatory in their design and action, involving citizens, civic organizations and governments, NGOs, businesses, labour unions and other stakeholders.

Rio+5 was designed to stimulate and reinforce such actions, by addressing four critical challenges:

  • How do we operationalize sustainable development?
  • What is the role and contribution of each stakeholder?
  • What changes are needed in management and governance systems in order to achieve
  • sustainability?
  • What strategies will ensure local, national and global sustainability?

Although we did not expect that Rio+5 would address the full scope of these challenges, it was designed to set in motion new initiatives and alliances that should contribute significantly to solving them over the next few years.

Let me draw your attention to five "action principles" that the Earth Council put forward as pre-requisites for the transition to sustainable development: clarification, simplification, systems integration, implementation, and cooperation. These principles emphasize that the goals of sustainable development are complex, interrelated and still not well understood --particularly when it comes to managing processes and systems in an integrated and "systemic" way.

To make sustainable development work, we must clarify our understanding of what it requires, and how it can be integrated into public policy and private decisions at every level, from local to global.

In building sustainable development from the ground up, all sectors of civil society. as well as business and government, have essential roles to play in applying its principles. It is only through unrelenting follow-up and implementation that the vision of the Earth Summit -- so enthusiastically proclaimed and welcomed the world over -- can be fulfilled.