Looking Back on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at Rio+20


World leaders and government officials as well as representatives from NGOs and the corporate sector are currently convening in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for Rio+20: The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  The stated goals of the conference are “to shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want”.  The conference is timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the seminal 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Rio Earth Summit as it is more commonly known, also held in Rio de Janeiro.

Given the grindingly slow progress of international climate mitigation negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) annual conference of parties meetings, many observers have become sceptical about the effectiveness of large multinational conferences like Rio+20 as vehicles for progressive action on major environmental issues.  It is therefore worth looking back on the achievements of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to remind ourselves of what can be achieved when parties from around the world unite to address global environmental problems and highlight the obstacles and limitations of international multilateral processes in pursuing environmental objectives.

Prelude to the Rio Earth Summit

A series of authoritative reports warning about the danger of anthropogenic climate change were published in the two decades leading up to the Rio summit.  The Club of Rome’s famous Limits to Growth report (1972) warned about the long-term negative ecological and climatological effects of the exponential growth of man-made greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.  Two publications in 1979 from the World Meteorological Association and the United States National Research Council predicted increases of mean global surface temperatures as a result of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.  In 1985, joint conference hosted by the United Nations Environment Program, the World Meteorological Association and the International Council for Science in Austria concluded that greenhouse gases “are expected” to cause significant warming in the next century and that some warming is inevitable.

In 1988, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 43/53, which explicitly identified climate change as “a common concern of mankind.”  The UN also established the International Panel on Climate Change to regularly assess the scientific understanding of climate change.  The IPCC’s First Assessment Report was released in 1990, which warned that, in spite of some degree of numerical uncertainty, human activity was leading to increased atmospheric concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and rising average temperatures.

The IPCC First Assessment Report was influential in the recommendation of the ministerial declaration of the Second World Climate Conference in November 1990 that negotiations on a framework climate convention should begin in short order.  This recommendation was adopted by the UN General Assembly, where formal negotiations for a framework convention on climate mitigation were launched.   The final text of the convention was agreed to in May 1992 and was opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit.  This convention is what we know today as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Rio Earth Summit

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro was a huge event, an unprecedented in scale for an international gathering on environmental issues that captured the growing environmental consciousness of the late 1980s and early 1990s, driven by the looming threat of atmospheric ozone depletion and a growing consensus about the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change.

Over 170 governments sent representatives to the Rio Earth Summit, including 108 heads of state, making it the largest multinational gathering ever convened for a conference addressing environmental issues.

The conference agenda included systematic scrutiny of patterns of economic production that led to poisonous waste and analysis of alternative sources of energy to replace the use of fossil fuels, as well as discussion of growing water scarcity and public transportation in cities to reduce vehicle emissions, congestion and the health problems caused by smog.

The Rio Earth Summit was best remembered however, for the stirring speech by 12-year old Canadian girl Severn Suzuki…

Achievements of the Rio Earth Summit

The most important achievement of the Rio Earth Summit was the opening for signing of the UNFCCC.  The UNFCCC is a framework of non-binding commitments and guiding principles whose practical objective was and remains to provide the structure within which the norms and principles of the convention could be solidified over time into binding international law.

Under the Convention, governments agreed to gather and share information on greenhouse gas emissions, national policies and best practices; launch national strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to expected impacts, including the provision of financial and technological support to developing countries; and cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

The UNFCC C was no small achievement.  Within five years of the Rio Earth Summit, negotiations within the UNFCCC conference of parties led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, considered to be one of the most ambitious multilateral agreements ever to come into force.  The Kyoto Protocol outlined the emissions reduction obligations for developed countries, along with additional schemes such as emissions trading, the clean development mechanism and joint implementation.

The Rio Earth Summit produced four other important documents: the Convention on Biological Diversity to regulate the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits arising from genetic resources (remember, 1992 was the beginning of the commercial era of genetic engineering and biotechnology), the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development outlining 27 principles to guide future sustainable development, the Agenda 21 plan for sustainable development, and the Forest Principles recommendations for sustainable forestry.

Hitting the Wall

It did not take long for the momentum of the Rio Earth Summit to slow down as governments across the developed world began to realise that making meaningful greenhouse gas emission reductions would require politically difficult restructuring of economies and energy infrastructure.

During the twenty years since the Rio Earth Summit and the inauguration of the UNFCCC, developed countries have attempted unsuccessfully to simultaneously negotiate reductions in carbon emissions and preserve economic competitiveness.  In hindsight this failure was inevitable, given the positive correlation between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Economic activities such as industrial production, agriculture, transportation, and material consumption necessarily consume resources and produce a carbon footprint.  There is a clear correlation between gross domestic product and energy usage.  In modern industrial economies powered by fossil fuels, this therefore means that there is also a clear correlation between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions, the by-product of burning fossil fuels (as the time-lapse history of global carbon dioxide emissions below illustrates).  Therefore, if levels of economic activity increase, then necessarily, the level of greenhouse gas emissions will also increase.

Openly hostile lobbying from carbon-intensive industries has also been a hindrance to constructive policy-making on climate mitigation.  Lobbying interests representing these sectors have bankrolled powerful public relations campaigns against climate science and the UNFCCC process, which have made it more difficult for governments to establish the level of domestic political support necessary to make more sweeping commitments in the UNFCCC than they have to date.

Country representatives at international negotiations need to adopt bargaining positions that will satisfy both domestic and international objectives and audiences (Robert Putnam’s two-level game).  To execute a successful negotiation, negotiators can only promise or concede as much as their domestic constituents will allow.  At the national level, domestic groups pursue their interests by pressuring the government to adopt favourable policies, and politicians seek power by constructing coalitions among those groups.  At the international level, national governments seek to maximize their own ability to satisfy domestic pressures, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments.

To date, binding commitments have proven elusive as negotiating parties bristle against the competing imperatives of greenhouse gas mitigation, economic competitiveness and domestic politics, a reality reflected in the aspirational nature of any declaration that arises from Rio+20.

Rio+20: New Momentum?

The 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is unlikely to yield achievements of the magnitude and importance of the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  However it does present the international community with an opportunity to rekindle the progressive legacy of the Rio Earth Summit and re-establish some of the momentum toward a sustainable future that has been lost since 1992.


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.



  1. […] The IPCC First Assessment Report formed the background to the November 1990 Ministerial Declaration of the Second World Climate Conference, which recommended the urgent negotiation of a framework climate convention.  In addition to the publication of the IPCC First Assessment, political momentum for an international legal mechanism to combat greenhouse gas pollution gained impetus from the adoption of ambiguous national GHG reduction targets by a number of OECD countries and concurrent preparations for the forthcoming Earth Summit (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro—the Rio Earth Summit. […]

Share your thoughts...

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.