The Rio Earth Summit

  • John Lanchberry
Part of the Studies in Diplomacy book series (STD)


The Earth Summit was the biggest intergovernmental conference ever held. More correctly called the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the summit was held in Rio de Janeiro between 3 and 14 June 1992. About forty thousand people attended either as delegates or observers. One hundred and eighty-three countries were represented. More than one hundred heads of state and government were present and publicity for the conference was assured by the attendance of about seven thousand representatives of the news media.


International Environmental Agreement Earth Summit Political Imperative Climate Convention Forest Convention 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    For an elaboration of the author’s views, see J. Lanchberry, ‘The Earth Summit Conference’, in J. B. Poole and R. Guthrie (eds), Verification 1993 (Brassey’s/VERTIC, 1993), pp. 229–38.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The United Nations Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The Brundtland Report is properly called the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development and was published in 1987.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This list is taken verbatim from UNGA Resolution 44/228, part 1, paragraph 12.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Of these, only climate change needed to be covered by a legally binding convention, ozone depletion and transboundary air pollution having been dealt with respectively by the Vienna Convention on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (and protocols) and the UN-ECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (and protocols).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    These were already largely protected, as far as legally binding conventions were concerned, by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the Oslo and Paris Conventions, and the UNEP Regional Seas Agreements (and by the UN Law of the Sea which had not then come into force).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The problems of desertification and population growth were mentioned many times at UNCED by senior conference and UN officials, such as the conference Secretary General, Maurice Strong, the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali and the Main Committee Chairman Tommy Koh. Prior to the conference, talking about population problems had been taboo in the UN and one of the positive outcomes of UNCED was that it put ‘population’ on the political agenda and led directly to the UN Population Conference in Cairo in September 1994.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    UNEP, WMO and ICSU set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Greenhouse gases absorb energy in the infra-red region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Many exist naturally as trace gases in the atmosphere and keep the mean surface temperature of the world about 33°C warmer than it otherwise would be. However, emissions due to the activities of mankind (anthropogenic emissions) are adding to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and may therefore be causing it to warm up. For a full description of this phenomenon see J. T. Houghton, J. J. Jenkins and J. J. Ephraums (eds), Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    The Villach Conferences were held in 1980, 1983, 1985 and 1987. The latter was in two parts, the second part being held in Bellagio, Italy. The conferences were sponsored by the WMO, UNEP and ICSU.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    The World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    This concluded that ‘emissions from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases …. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in additional warming of the Earth’s surface.’Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    For a fuller discussion of this topic, see John Lanchberry and David Victor, ‘The Role of Science in the Global Climate Negotiations’ in Helge Ole Bergessen and Georg Parman (eds), Green Globe Yearbook (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    The Toronto Targets derive from the Toronto Conference which called for a return to 1988 emission levels by the year 2000 and a 20 per cent cut by 2005.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    The Small Island States risk inundation if significant climate change (and concomitant sea level rise) occurs. For a fuller discussion of the negotiations see D. Bodanski, ‘The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: A Commentary’, Yale Journal of International Law, vol. 18, no. 2 (Summer 1993).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Square brackets indicate that the text contained therein has not been agreed by all parties.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    The Bureau consisted of the Chairman and Executive Secretary of the Committee, representatives of the main UN regions (Southern America, and so forth) and important interested groupings, such as AOSIS.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Last minute redrafting of treaty texts by chairmen is a fairly common feature of UN negotiations but this redraft was extreme by any standards. In this case, there is a fairly well substantiated rumour that the contentious parts of the text were, in fact, agreed between the US head of delegation (Bob Reinstein) and the UK delegation head (Tony Brenton), who was mandated to speak for the EU.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    In practice, most developed states were willing to pay for the exploitation of resources but they were unwilling to commit themselves legally to having to do so invariably.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    The USA signed the agreement only when the new Democratic administration of President Clinton replaced the Republican administration of President Bush, who was in office at the time of the summit and during most of the negotiations which led up to it.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    The ITTA has since been renewed for a further ten years.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    The Group of Seven supposedly richest democratic nations.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    The Indian case was complex but basically they thought that the USA was proposing to preserve and enhance forests because they are a major sink for carbon dioxide (plants convert carbon dioxide first into sugars and then into starches and cellulose); the idea being that the USA could avoid reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by planting trees to mop them up.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    The G-77 is the main negotiating bloc for the developing countries. It has far more than 77 members, and always has had. The name derives from a sort of parody of the G-7 group of most prosperous nations.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    ‘Major Groups’ include those concerned with environment, development, youth, women, farmers, trade unions, science, religion, indigenous peoples, business and industry and local government.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    For such a book, see Stanley P. Johnson (ed.), The Earth Summit: The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (Graham and Trotman/Martinus Nijhoff, 1993).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Copacabana and Ipanema are the more salubrious southern suburbs of Rio.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    The NGO parallel conference, the Global Forum, was sited in the centre of Rio in a beautiful location with views of the bay and Sugar Loaf. Unfortunately, it was so far from the UN Conference that the Forum was sparsely attended by UNCED delegates and observers.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    The arrival of ever more senior representatives led to some interesting games of musical chairs in the conference hall. Each state had only one desk with three seats in file behind it, with the most senior representative taking the front seat. Thus, whenever a more senior person arrived, all of the others moved back one seat with the person at the back losing their seat and having to leave. By the time that the summit proper started, very few officials had seats because all were taken by ministers or other VIPs.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Sub-committees also worked on the Declaration of Forest Principles and on the Rio Declaration.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Agenda 21 would have been agreed without Koh but probably not in quite such a radical form. Koh had a genuine sympathy for the poorer nations and his consummate skill as a chairman enabled him to achieve a lot for them. His humour was particularly effective in getting round contentious issues. A typical remark was (referring to a phrase in square brackets), ‘Does anyone disagree with the words “fair and equitable” … USA?’ The USA did object on this occasion, to much laughter, but did so thereafter with decreased frequency.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Reilly was head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (and ex-head of the World Wildlife Fund, USA) and was generally perceived to be ‘green’. President Bush’s administration was generally perceived not to be.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    For example, after the oil crisis of the 1970s the French adopted the policy of trying to ensure their independence from fossil fuel suppliers by embarking on a programme of building nuclear power stations. Because a very large proportion of greenhouse gases and other atmospheric pollution comes from fossil fuel power stations, the French policy resulted in their having the lowest emissions per capita in Europe. The government did not therefore see why they should commit themselves to substantial emission reductions, either in the Climate Convention or in Agenda 21. French policy in other areas related to the environment placed them in a similarly atypical position compared to other European states.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Scurrilous rumours circulated at the conference suggested that President Castro’s speech was the shortest that he had ever made. Possibly as a consequence of this, his was the most warmly received speech of the summit and brought him a standing ovation from a sizeable minority of the delegates.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Public perception of events such as the Earth Summit are, of course, influenced by press reports. Unfortunately, the news media covering the summit generally did a very poor job of reporting it: few journalists seemed to understand what was going on and many press reports were wildly inaccurate.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    These countries are developed countries.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    For an account of the INC negotiations since the summit see David Victor and Julian Salt, ‘Climate since Rio’, Environment (November 1994).Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    The development of the agreements for the protection of the ozone layer (the Vienna Convention, Montreal Protocol and London and Copenhagen Amendments) were similarly rapid and had no summit to help to propel them forward, although they did attract a lot of high-level political attention.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Lanchberry

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