Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Representatives from 172 nations met in Rio de Janeiro to make recommendations for the preservation of the environment in a rapidly developing world. The assembled leaders signed the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, endorsed the Rio Declaration and the Forest Principles, and adopted Agenda 21, a three-hundred-page plan for achieving sustainable development in the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

On June 3, 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The summit attracted some ten thousand delegates from 172 countries along with twenty thousand other participants interested in discussing environmental issues of global concern. Earth Summit (1992) Environmental policy, international Agenda 21[Agenda twenty one] Sustainable development Conference on Environment and Development, U.N. (1992) [kw]Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro (June 3-14, 1992) [kw]Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro, Earth (June 3-14, 1992) [kw]Rio de Janeiro, Earth Summit Convenes in (June 3-14, 1992) Earth Summit (1992) Environmental policy, international Agenda 21[Agenda twenty one] Sustainable development Conference on Environment and Development, U.N. (1992) [g]South America;June 3-14, 1992: Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro[08370] [g]Brazil;June 3-14, 1992: Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro[08370] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 3-14, 1992: Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro[08370] [c]Environmental issues;June 3-14, 1992: Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro[08370] [c]Trade and commerce;June 3-14, 1992: Earth Summit Convenes in Rio de Janeiro[08370] Strong, Maurice F. Brundtland, Gro Harlem Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy

The Rio conference had its roots in the 1972 United Nations Stockholm Conference Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) on the Human Environment Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) and in the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), an organization created in 1983. The WCED, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland (a Norwegian parliamentary leader who would later become prime minister of Norway), in 1987 published Our Common Future, Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development) also known as the Brundtland Report, Brundtland Report which defined major global environmental problems. This document became an important basis for the discussions that culminated in the 1992 Earth Summit. Maurice F. Strong, a Canadian businessman and environmentalist who had served as secretary-general of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, provided continuity by also acting as secretary-general of the Rio conference.

Representatives from more than 170 nations stand for a moment of silence during a 1997 meeting at the United Nations. The special session was called to review progress on environmental issues since the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The central concern of those who planned the 1992 meeting was how to promote “sustainable development”—that is, how to encourage progress and economic growth without causing irremediable damage to the environment. The environmental costs of the industrialization of the world’s developed nations had proven to be quite high. The probable consequences of the continuing destruction of natural resources worried many observers in the developed world, as the world’s developing nations seemed embarked on a similar course. Delegates in Rio thus had to consider how to repair the damage already wrought by industrialization and, furthermore, how to encourage the developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere to avoid the course of action undertaken by the richer nations to the north.

Apprehension about the fate of the global environment had escalated with evidence of dramatic increases in atmospheric pollution. Pollution;air During the 1980’s, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide had grown at an alarming rate. With the acceleration of automobile production and the growth of other heavy industries in the Third World, factory emissions and exhaust from ever-greater numbers of automobiles caused severe pollution in and around such cities as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Mexico City, at times reaching crisis proportions.

As “progress” in the developing world fueled pollution, the role of tropical rain forests in the global environment became ever more important. Rain forests Through the process of photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide and, in its place, release oxygen into the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the atmospheric effects of air pollution. The 1980’s, however, also witnessed the accelerated deforestation of the world’s tropical areas. Countless trees were cut down; moreover, people who cleared forestland often burned tree stumps, releasing additional carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into an already heavily polluted environment. Deforestation

The possibility that damage to the atmosphere could cause global warming Global warming Climate change heightened public concern. Many observers predicted that the combination of industrialization and deforestation might result in the melting of polar ice caps and a consequent rise in sea levels that would flood many of the earth’s coastal regions. Inhabitants of the industrialized nations of the Northern Hemisphere, in particular, insisted that measures needed to be taken to protect the future of the planet. Environmentalists in general believed that only resolutions made on a global level could ensure common survival.

There was a different emphasis, however, among the developing nations, overwhelmingly situated south of the equator, which had embarked on a process of industrialization modeled on that undergone by the nations of the North decades earlier. In the South, progress was inextricably linked to competitive industrialization. Environmental measures, which were often tied to expensive technologies to control industrial emissions as well as to the protection of forested regions, seemed likely to slow the economies of developing countries.

The delegates to the Rio conference were thus naturally divided between representatives of the North and representatives of the South, between those concerned with assuring continued industrial development and those intent on preserving the environment. Representatives of developing nations argued that they needed assurances that developed nations would help to pay the costs of promoting environmentally friendly development. Developing nations called for richer countries to increase their foreign aid expenditures to 0.07 percent of their economic output by the year 2000, nearly double the approximately 0.04 percent level of 1992. The northern nations, however, hesitated to make promises to meet any specific target for overall aid in a recessionary environment.

The delegation from the United States, furthermore, resisted targets, claiming that the large ballpark figures did not sufficiently take into account the developing nations’ abilities to absorb the aid. U.S. delegates also argued that increased aid would make developing countries less interested in courting foreign investment, thereby limiting potential for economic growth. The United States came to be viewed as the most recalcitrant of the northern nations in acknowledging the need to promote sustainable development in the South; among developed nations, Japan led the way in promising to increase its aid from $800 million per year in 1992 to $1.4 billion per year by the end of the decade.

The possibility of hostile standoffs concerned participants and observers alike. Although delegates agreed regarding the need to develop a multibillion-dollar aid package to promote environmentally sustainable development in the poorer South, leaders of northern powers worried about locking themselves into commitments to increase aid while their own economies were plagued by recession. Leaders in the South were concerned that efforts to monitor spending of aid money might interfere with their national sovereignty. On a more positive side, participants were hopeful that agreements made in Rio would mark the beginning of an environmental revolution as significant as the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Three key issues dominated the discussions: the global climate, the preservation of endangered species, and the repair of an already damaged environment. The nations of the North supported measures to restrict the emissions of heat-trapping gases, especially by tightening standards on automobile exhaust. At the conclusion of the conference, a climate agreement was signed that set vague targets for bringing dangerous emissions under control. The agreement on biodiversity proved more problematic. The U.S. delegation refused to sign the convention, arguing that the agreement threatened to hinder developments in biotechnology by not fully protecting patent rights. Before adjourning on June 14, 1992, delegates approved a massive global cleanup plan called Agenda 21; the plan comprised a series of recommendations on nearly every known environmental issue.

The Earth Summit thus focused global attention on worldwide environmental concerns and on environmental problems caused by development. In the months and years that followed the meeting, however, the implementation of the agreements and recommendations reached collectively became the responsibility of individuals and governments around the world, and their compliance with the guidelines and goals set at the Earth Summit was at best mixed.


The agreements signed at the 1992 Earth Summit represented remarkable achievements in bringing together almost the entire world community, but the conference nevertheless generated intense controversy. The underlying assumption of those who supported the need for the Earth Summit was that all of humanity is part of a global community in which local damage to the environment affects the whole. Individuals, therefore, must work toward the global good; in other words, they must “think globally and act locally.” The conference, however, demonstrated that the globe is seriously divided, not only between developed and developing nations but also between those who believe that governments and supragovernmental organizations should enforce sustainable development and those who believe that individuals should be allowed to make their own decisions without such intervention.

In the wake of the summit, the concern grew that environmental globalism might mask a new kind of colonialism. Some posited that the enforcement of environmental standards imposed by the already industrialized nations of the North on the industrializing nations of the South meant that the North would continue to dictate the kind (and speed) of development in the South. Advocates for the developing nations insisted that the North should not be allowed to impose tough standards on the South simply because the developed nations had destroyed their own resources first. It soon became clear that compromises on environmental issues would have to be worked out carefully and slowly.

The Earth Summit also highlighted the intensely political nature of environmentalism, locally as well as internationally. The recalcitrance of the United States, for example, had much to do with the fact that the country’s delegates had been selected by the administration of President George H. W. Bush, a Republican, during a presidential election year. Many U.S. Democrats, including vice presidential candidate Al Gore, Gore, Al strongly supported tougher environmental standards; in contrast, Bush ardently courted more conservative Republican voters, many of whom insisted that the role of government needed to shrink. In such a context, it was not surprising that the United States did not assume a leadership role in Rio.

The case of Brazil also illustrated the precarious political nature of environmentalism. When the summit met, President Fernando Collor de Mello Collor de Mello, Fernando had already demonstrated his own commitment to improving Brazil’s record in combating deforestation and pollution. Collor had appointed his country’s first minister of the environment and had given him the support necessary to curb burnings in the Amazon and Atlantic rain forests. Collor’s government created extractive reserves to protect the livelihood of rubber tappers in Amazonia and also formalized the demarcation of lands belonging to the Yanomami Indians along Brazil’s northern border. Little more than one year after the Rio conference, however, Collor was impeached for corruption and removed from office. As the attention of Brazilians shifted to their pressing political problems, environmental concerns receded into the background.

The impacts of the Earth Summit thus proved to be mixed. On one hand, it opened, on a grand scale, international discussion of issues critical to the future of the planet; on the other, it demonstrated that finding global solutions to environmental problems requires respect for individual freedoms as well as generous diplomatic skills and ability to compromise. If nothing else, the summit generated a heated debate on the nature of the world’s environmental ills. At the very least, the exchange enriched understanding of worldwide environmental problems and strengthened hopes that lasting solutions might be found. It was succeeded by ongoing U.N. meetings and conferences to discuss unresolved concerns in subsequent years. Earth Summit (1992) Environmental policy, international Agenda 21[Agenda twenty one] Sustainable development Conference on Environment and Development, U.N. (1992)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Lester R., Christopher Flavin, and Sandra Postel. Saving the Planet: How to Shape an Environmentally Sustainable Global Economy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Written shortly before the Earth Summit. Urges delegates to the conference to view the 1990’s as a pivotal decade and argues that governments need to begin actively shaping environmentally healthy societies. Provides practical definitions of environmentally sustainable economies and societies and describes ways to achieve them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman, Daniel A. Ecopolitics: Building a Green Society. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. Begins with a brief history of environmental problems and a look at what might lie ahead. Concludes that personal and social responsibility, translated into “green politics,” can ensure changes necessary to protect the environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodstein, Eban S. Economics and the Environment. 4th ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Presents in-depth, balanced analyses of environmental policy debates. Includes author and subject indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middleton, Neil, Phil O’Keefe, and Sam Moyo. The Tears of the Crocodile: From Rio to Reality in the Developing World. Boulder, Colo.: Pluto Press, 1993. Discusses some of the major issues addressed at the Rio conference. Contends that the interests of the North won out over those of the South at the Earth Summit and displays pessimism that much substantive change would take place in the aftermath of the conference.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, Peter, Kazi F. Jalal, and John A. Boyd. An Introduction to Sustainable Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Division of Continuing Education, 2006. Accessible introductory-level textbook includes discussion of the impacts of multinational corporations and globalization on the world environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sachs, Wolfgang, ed. Global Ecology: A New Arena of Political Conflict. London: Zed Books, 1993. Collection of essays stresses the conflict between North and South in the Earth Summit deliberations, pointing to the pitfalls of relying on solutions that emphasize globalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sitarz, Daniel, ed. Agenda 21: The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet. Boulder, Colo.: Earth Press, 1993. Abridged version of the final official text of Agenda 21, as adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. Organized somewhat like a long-range planning document but serves as a good attempt to educate lay readers on steps that are needed to protect the environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Discusses environmental issues common to the global community, including food supply, population pressure, energy sources, and biodiversity. Contains a global agenda for changes recommended to enable the achievement of sustainable development. Throughout, the emphasis is on multilateral action.

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Categories: History