10+10+10+10 = Rio+20 – a Short History

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“The future we want” is the claim of the 2012 UN conference for sustainability! While all eyes keep looking forward let us risk a look back into the history of this event to get a wider understanding of what Rio+20 means. Quite obvious that the “+20” stands for twenty years after the groundbreaking UN conference in 1992. But the story goes further back in history.

Publicity beats math? – the first UN world summit on sustainability

If we follow the history and the mathematical rule, the upcoming Rio+20 event in June should actually be labeled as Stockholm+40 since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm 1972 is considered to be the first UN conference on today’s understanding of sustainability. As humans managed to land on the moon, they zoomed back and started to care about planet earth. Some serious pollution issues, the aftermath of the movement of 1968 and the rise of atomic energy might also have contributed to it.

Not less than 113 countries and many non-governmental organizations participated in this UN conference with some outcomes still impacting today’s sustainability agenda. The Stockholm declaration and the foundation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) were two of the major outcomes. The UNEP is still today the leading organization to push sustainable development. The World Environmental Day (WED) might not have a huge impact but it is an important signal sending since 1972.

In the same year the Club of Rome presented its famous study “Limits to Growth”. Even though the publication does not have a direct relation with the UNCHE, it underlines the importance of environmental issues at that time. The whole movement gathered momentum, but unfortunately this should not last very long.

The silence before Rio 1992

The next big follow up, the ‘Stockholm+10’ conference in Nairobi 1982, can be considered as a flop. There are many reasons for it, one of them might be the political circumstances at that time. Even though there is the official Nairobi declaration, the conference often stays unmentioned in historical reviews. For two reasons I personally would like to put Nairobi 82 on the same level as Stockholm 72, Rio 92 and Johannesburg 02. First because it gives me a catchy “+10” rule for the main conferences in this field, and second, I believe that we should not mask an event just because we wished to have another output or more media attention. Also less successful conferences are good examples of what we are talking about: long and exhausting political processes.

The only event which does not really fit into the “+10” rhythm, but had an enormous impact on the topic, is the Brundtland Report “Our Common Future”  published in 1987. It provides the main elements and definition of today’s sustainability debate. This report was the foundation for the following earth summit in Rio twenty years after Stockholm.

The well known conference in Rio 1992 was the stimulatory conference with a publicity Nairobi never had. It has to be considered as a groundbreaking conference in the field of sustainable development. It marked the starting point to many other conferences and initiatives. Student Reporter colleague Ilke Schaart took the effort of analyzing the meaning of Rio 92 and some of its aftermath (forthcoming post).

Even though sustainability gathered some momentum during the last years and Rio 92 was a spectacle, we are in a political process since 1972 with some ups and downs. While some conferences are a huge step forward, others are hard negotiations on the ground and there is also a chance of making no steps at all. History cannot tell us what will happen this year in Rio, but it helps to give an overall picture and set the right expectations for such a mega event.

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  1. Pingback: Back to Discussing the Future | Studentreporter

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