Rio 1992 – high hopes dashed

Helicopters thundered up and down Copacabana, Ipanema and the other beaches. Tanks guarded the bridges and tunnels, the favelas were in lockdown, schools closed and supermarkets stood empty.

Unexpectedly, with just four days’ notice, President George Bush senior, flush with success at the fall of communism and victory in the first Gulf War, had arrived in Rio for the UN’s conference on environment and development. 

The world had seen little like it before; after two years of planning and preparatory meetings, 108 heads of state, 2,500 official delegates from 172 countries and an estimated 45,000 environmentalists, development activists, indigenous peoples, industrialists and farmers were in town to protect the environment and reduce poverty. 

On one level, the summit was a phenomenal UN success. In a few short days of formal high-level negotiations, countries signed up to a new convention on biodiversity, a framework convention on climate change that led to the Kyoto Protocol, a massive 6,000-page blueprint for action at local level and principles on forests. Heads of state even agreed on a six-page philosophical paper, called the Rio Declaration, which linked poverty to environmental degradation. By today’s standards, when it takes 15 years to get not very far with climate change negotiations, it was quite extraordinary. 

But on another level, the 1992 Earth Summit was for many present a grave disappointment, marked by furious rows between rich and poor countries, US intransigence and bullying, an oversupply of rhetoric by everyone and little real action. Many environmental groups returned home devastated at what they considered a lack of progress. The agreements, they pointed out, were non-binding, most of the intended targets and timetables had been left out, much of the money promised before the meeting to poor countries was not forthcoming and there was little or no inducement for rich countries to comply with anything they had signed up to. 

President Bush might also have wished he had never gone. He made no friends with rich or poor, attacking Japan and Germany as “latecomers” to the ecological cause, rebuking indigenous peoples for worrying about forest loss and offending everyone by not signing the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). With an eye on his forthcoming presidential race against a young Bill Clinton, he played to the conservative anti-environmental movement developing in the USA. “America’s record on environmental protection is second to none, so I did not come here to apologise,” he said. 

It was a bad call. Throughout the ten days, the USA was pilloried by one and all for being the only one of the 172 countries present to refuse to sign up to the CBD and for forcing everyone to accept a much weakened version of the first climate change treaty. Protecting plants and animals, Bush argued, would damage America’s economic growth and industrial performance. 

By contrast, President Fidel Castro of Cuba emerged as the summit’s popular hero, calling for what he said should be a “more just distribution of wealth in the world.” In his short speech to the heads of state, he denounced the industrialised countries as guilty of most of the world’s environmental problems. 

If Rio was a milestone, the real beginning of modern awareness of global environmental problems can be traced to the UN’s Stockholm Conference 20 years earlier, when 115 countries agreed by consensus that the environment was a “new and important area for international cooperation.” They agreed on 26 legal principles to guide new laws on pollution and environmental degradation. 

Yet 40 years and countless treaties, agreements, conventions and directives later, the global ecological crisis appears little closer to being resolved. The relative political innocence of Stockholm and Rio has turned to doubt that self-serving governments can deliver, when every step forward meets setbacks. 

Critics of the UN system of working by consensus point out correctly that many of the agreements made in Rio or Stockholm have never been realised and new agreements can be easily blocked. The UN argues that consensus has to be the first principle of international governance, and what is missing from environmental negotiations is the political will to achieve change. 

While there may be disagreements at the top, all the polls suggest the passion among ordinary people to better protect the earth is still growing and the consistent message, from Stockholm through to Rio+20, is for less talk and more action.


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