30 years on: What lessons does the Rio Summit offer for the drive to net zero?

With countries now setting net zero targets on a thirty-year timeline, it is important to explore the legacy of a deal agreed by heads of state three decades ago, write Craig Jones and Felix Dodds

In 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the impact of the French revolution, almost 200 years on. “Too early to say”, he replied.

30  years ago today, arguably the most important global sustainability meeting ever held was in full sway: the Rio Earth Summit. Premier Zhou would think it premature, but enough time has passed to make an assessment of the summit’s legacy.

And there is a pressing reason to do so. Sixty per cent of the world has set net zero targets for 2050 and we have just under 30 years to achieve those targets. What does Rio tell us about how much can be achieved in three decades? Does the global record fill us with hope, or despair?

The summit’s package of agreements was, by any standard for a single international meeting, pretty extraordinary:

  • a climate change convention that spawned the annual global conferences and eventually led to the Paris agreement;
  • a legally binding convention on biodiversity, ratified by all major except the US;
  • a 300-page blueprint for action, Agenda 21, which inspired many local initiatives around the globe, with the call to action: ‘think globally, act locally’;
  • a declaration on forests; and
  • the Rio Declaration on Environment & Development, 27 principles that were to guide countries to a more sustainable path.

The summit also led to resulting international agreements on desertification in 1994 and fish stocks in 1995, and the establishment of the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development in 1993.

Without doubt, this was the first global attempt to think seriously about the interdependency of social, economic and environmental factors, and how success in one area required action in the others to be sustained over time. And like every major international sustainability conference since, there was noisy disagreement. Cheerleaders trumpeted ‘the largest and most important gathering of world leaders in history’. Critics dismissed it as a “time-wasting talking shop”. Some things never change.

The numbers were certainly: 109 heads of state, 172 countries, 2,500 official delegates, and around 45,000 NGO participants at a side event called the Global Forum. The city was locked down: military helicopters swooping over Copacabana beach, while armed soldiers patrolled the favelas.

Rio established a new model for UN green summitry. Every G7 leader attended, along with some unusual bedfellows, as the Guardian reported: “The Dalai Lama meditated with Shirley MacLaine on the beach at dawn, Jane Fonda and Pelé turned up, as did Fidel Castro, train robber Ronnie Biggs, and an obscure US senator called Al Gore.

An army of civil servants and scientists worldwide were detached from their normal duties to make Rio a success. There was a grueling two year process, with several preparatory meetings in Nairobi, Geneva and New York, the latter producing 24 million pages of documentation. Officials flew to meetings laden with papers in the pre-digital age.

The UK government established a detailed program of consultation and outreach, including taking a large delegation of NGO, local government and business representatives to Brazil. There were several debates in the House of Commons, notable by their depth and quality compared to the current standard.

Peter Handley, today a senior official in the European Commission, was a key part of the UK negotiating team: “We knew that Rio was special. A new North-South global contract. I think this was the first time we really realised the value of working closely with NGOs, businesses and local government to get fresh ideas and engagement for implementing a major global agreement.”

Rio itself marked an important anniversary: ​​the 1972 Stockholm conference, which was the first significant international environment meeting, celebrated last week at the Stockholm+50 gathering.

Tom Burke, special adviser to the UK’s Environment Secretary Michael Howard during the Earth Summit, traces a line from the early 70s through Rio to today: ‘In 1972, the global population was under 4 billion (7.9 billion today) and the most sophisticated tech available was a Hewlett Packard scientific calculator. There were possibly 200 environmental professionals in the UK. There are now more than 10,000 working in the City of London alone. The environment was a marginal issue politically and environmentalists were people to make jokes about. The environment is now a mainstream political issue and no-one makes jokes about environmentalists anymore’.

If Stockholm outlined the problem, Rio was the first attempt to establish a broad plan of action and marry environmental and development objectives. The run up to the conference was not promising. By April, construction of the site had only just begun, amid resignations and firings in the Brazilian government over financial scandals. Observers at the final preparatory meeting predicted that the summit would be “less denouement and more conflict resolution”.

John Major arrived fresh from an unexpected election victory only two months earlier. President Bush flew in having just learned he would be facing the internationally unknown Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in the US election a few months later. Bush was lukewarm about attending, but Major and others encouraged him.

Lord Howard remembers the part he played: “For me the most memorable day came a few weeks before the summit started. Immediately after I was appointed Environment Secretary, I was sent to Washington to persuade the administration of George Bush senior to sign the climate convention so that the President could attend Rio. The administration was deeply divided and I was told the decision depended entirely on my meeting at the State Department at the end of the day. The rest is history”.

In his speech to the summit, the President was bullish: “The United States comes to Rio proud of what we have accomplished and committed to extending the record on American leadership on the environment”.

As the speeches continued, NGO leaders criticizing the dilution of the summit’s original aims: the climate change convention did not have a legally binding action plan; the agreement on forests was downgraded from a convention to a statement of principles; and a number of major importers, including the UK, only agreed the Biodiversity Convention at the last moment. President Clinton signed it the following year, but couldn’t convince Congress to ratify.

On his return from Brazil, John Major told the House of Commons that “the results have not gone as far as some would wish. There had to be compromises…..but the true importance of Rio is that world leaders have set a new benchmark on which to build cooperation”.

Three decades on, most of the major sustainability indicators continue to flash red. Of the 35 global goals in the UN’s 2021 Sustainable Development report, only five were on track. Jonathan Porritt, one of the leading voices urging action in 1992, reflects: “Rio was the most significant environmental gathering of world leaders ever, by a considerable margin. It’s scorecard, in terms of new treaties, agreements and inspiring ‘calls to arms’ , was astonishing. Which makes the near total failure of world leaders to seize that moment in following up on those achievements all the more tragic.”

Porritt’s verdict appears to be the dominant one today. The sense that Rio was on the right track; The key issues were well chosen, but that a large part of the summit’s original potential was squandered. Governments failed to implement properly their commitments. There was a lack of domestic legislation to underpin the Rio principles and conventions. And a lack of credible and independent international scrutiny to monitor delivery.

But some of those involved in 1992 still see glimmers of hope. Derek Osborn, former Director General at the Department of Environment and the senior UK official working on the summit, identifies two: ‘first, the general awareness of the challenge of sustainability is now much more widespread, even amongst politicians. And secondly, some of the world’s leading businesses are starting to see opportunities in promoting more sustainable products.’

Sustainability has undoubtedly risen in importance over the last thirty years, partly due to the foundations laid at Rio. But a chasm persists between the intent in 1992 and the delivery since. Which is perhaps the key lesson as governments set net zero targets. Will a future generation of research and analysts be writing articles in 2050 praising the vision and intent of net zero, but lamenting the poor follow up? On the historical evidence, it’s highly likely.


Craig Jones was a junior official in the UK government’s Earth Summit team in 1992. Felix Dodds was head of UNA-UK Rio team, which co-ordinated the NGO input to and at the summit.


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