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Bosselmann, Klaus --- "Rio+10: any closer to sustainable development?" [2002] NZJlEnvLaw 10; (2002) 6 NZJEL 297

Last Updated: 10 February 2023


Rio+10: Any Closer

to Sustainable Development?

Klaus Bosselmann*

2002 marked the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio that promoted the concept of sustainable development. While the concept has been popular among governments and business, very little has been done to implement it. The recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg adopted a “Plan of Implementation”, but failed to provide specific guidance. Economic globalization has shaped governments’ policies to an extent that only a major turn- around, led by civil society, could salvage the vision of sustainability.


The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg (26 August–5 September, 2002)1 provided a unique opportunity to review what has been achieved since the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (1992). At UNCED, 176 nation States agreed on the new principle of sustainable development (SD). Expressed in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, SD promised solutions for the world’s social and ecological problems: the gap between “North”2 and “South”,3 unsustainable economics, climate change, loss of biodiversity, disappearance of rain forests, to name but a few.

At the WSSD, 190 nation States were able to record some progress during the last 10 years. The 1992 Framework Climate Change Convention and 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity are in the middle of their implementation process, Agenda 21 is being implemented by many thousands of civil society

* Associate Professor of Law, University of Auckland.

  1. < >.
  2. North America, Europe, Japan and Australasia.
  3. As a metaphor for the developing regions in Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania.

groups around the world and most countries have, at least, some sort of national SD strategies in place.

On the other hand, greenhouse emissions have continued to rise, loss of biodiversity has increased, the destruction of ancient forests progressed unabated, the degradation of fertile soil has worsened, over-fishing of oceans has continued, and the new threat of genetically engineered disruption has emerged. The world is sinking deeper into poverty and ecological decline, notwithstanding the increase of wealth in some specific places.4

So, has the world moved any closer to SD ten years after Rio? What impacts will Johannesburg have for the future of SD?


1. The Spirit of Rio

Rio had set a new agenda. To meet global ecological challenges, the rich nations of the North were dependent on the poor nations of the South. Combating climate change and biodiversity loss required global cooperation. In Rio, for the first time in history developing countries had to be accepted as equal partners, not just as demanding “have-nots”. The negotiation power of the South was considerable and led to agreements that provided for growth strategies, technological transfers and financial assistance. At the same time, the North accepted responsibility as the main culprit of world-wide environmental degradation. The political influence of developing countries was also visible in environmental treaty negotiations. In fact, it has steadily increased since Rio.5

The treaties and agreements of Rio have become the fundaments of today’s international environmental law. Thanks to ongoing Conferences of Parties, regularly accompanied by media attention, and many new institutions and initiatives, UNCED has become an institutionalised process.6 Follow-ups to Rio include new environmental treaties such as the 1994 Convention to Combat Desertification and additional agreements to UN Conventions such as 1997 Kyoto Protocol (on climate change) and the 2000 Cartagena Protocol (on biodiversity). Of new institutions, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development7 has been the most

  1. For details and statistic data of this general decline see eg, World Resources Institute, World Resources 2000–2001: People and Ecosystems (2000); WWF, Living Planet Report 2000 (2000); United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1998 (1998).
  2. Biermann, F., Weltumweltpolitik zwischen Nord und Süd. Die neue Verhandlungsmacht der Entwicklungsländer (1998).
  3. For a brief overview see Kiss. A. & Shelton, D., International Environmental Law ( 2nd ed, 2000) 69–73.
  4. < >.

important as it oversees and promotes the implementation of Agenda 21. The process of implementing Agenda 21 concerns not just politicians and governments, but even more so civil society.

Undoubtedly, the “spirit of Rio” has motivated and activated people around the world. The idea of sustainability has inspired environmentalists, development experts, business people, unionists, church members and human rights activists as much as “ordinary” citizens working within neighbourhoods, schools and community groups. The inspiration here has often been a practical desire for making a difference beyond — or even ignorant of — the actual concept of SD. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been participating in international, national and local political processes towards implementing Agenda 21. Many NGO representatives participate in international conferences with official status as observers and lobby, often influencing negotiators and treaty contents. The manifold Local Agenda 21 process includes North and South alike with “Think global — act local” as its motto. Such processes demonstrate the importance of implementing global sustainability at local levels, where people live and work.

The post-Rio process has been an experience of new dimension. It has provided arenas for transnational social forces distressed about environmental deterioration and political failure, to interact with governments. It has also seen the emergence of global civil society, promoting new forms of global environmental governance.8

2. The Failure of Rio

The guiding idea for global environmental governance is not environmental protection, but SD. Its underpinning philosophy is not conservation of nature, but reconstruction of the economy. Such desire interferes with the workings of the market. It is not surprising, therefore, that the economic globalization movement of the 90s totally sidelined the sustainability movement. Its market-driven forces operate with no respect for people’s autonomy and the planet’s ecosystem, while SD tries to achieve the opposite, ie strengthening people’s responsibility for local, sustainable economies in an indivisible global environment.9

The sustainability movement lost this battle even before it began. Already at Rio it was evident that North/South tensions persisted, that the environmental agenda was unrelated to the trade agenda, and that the states’ agreement on SD was purely rhetorical. The text of the Rio Declaration on Environment and

  1. Falk, R., Human Governance and the Environment: Overcoming Neo-Liberalism, in Gleeson,

B. & Low, N., Governing for the Environment (200) 221-236;.Hempel, L., Environmental Governance: the Global Challenge (1996).

  1. Casagrande, F.E., “Sustainable Development in the New Economic (Dis)Order” (1996) 4

Sustainable Development 121–129.

Development documents all this. It contains neo-liberal precepts about an open economy and not burdening trade and investment with environmental restrictions.10 By contrast, concerns for sustainability remain abstract and unrelated to the causes of the North/South gap and the environmental crisis.11 The list of the Declaration’s ideas reflects this approach of committing without being committed:

All these ideas, and others not listed here, have in common that they attempt no major changes to the global economic agenda. They are designed to accompany, but not to question the industrialized countries’ philosophy of economic prosperity. Rio’s dominant mood was to allow market-forces to work efficiently to achieve economic growth accelerated by expansion in trade and investment.12

  1. These assertions fall much below the standards set by the Stockholm Declaration twenty years earlier which expressed a sense of urgency for global action; see eg Kiss & Shelton, supra note 6, at 60–63.
  2. Falk, supra note 8, at 230.
  3. Already in 1971 GATT’s Council had established a Working Group on Environmental Measures and International Trade. However, the Working Group did not have substantive meetings until 1992, when it looked at trade provisions in existing environmental obligations, but did not recommend integration of environmental standards in free-trade obligations. Two years after Rio, the Marrakech Agreement (establishing WTO) mentioned environmental concerns only in its Preamble.

It was part of this mood to avoid specific commitments even in relation to such urgent global problems as that of climate change or biological diversity. The two 1992 Conventions covering these issues left any binding commitments (towards targets and timetables) to future negotiations of the respective Conference of the Parties.

Against this backdrop, the first review of the implementation of the Rio agreements in 1997 could only be sobering. The UN Rio+5 Conference in New York ended without a political declaration, negotiations failed to achieve a consensus on what to do next. The only consensus between government delegations and NGOs from North and South was that the trend of environmental degradation and decline of living standards had remained unbroken: the population explosion had continued, the gap between rich and poor — among and within countries — had widened, and military conflicts over resources had increased. Economic globalization had accelerated causing an acceleration of social and environmental problems.

The second review in Johannesburg in September 2002 could not be much different.13 The WSSD could repeat what has been said five years ago.14 The idea of sustainability is still a key term that can be found in numerous strategy and position papers. And there are many more SD initiatives of governments and NGOs including business and companies than ever before. However, as clearly defined and generally agreed criteria for what SD includes are still missing, progress has not really been made. The plethora of definitions means that SD can be used for almost any purpose.

3. What is Sustainable Development Anyway?

There is a wide-spread belief that SD aims at bringing social, economic and environmental interests together. The idea of a triangle of interests seems almost common ground between politicians, environmentalists and economists. It may, in fact, be seen as a particular strength of SD that it attracts communication between diverse groups that otherwise have little in common. SD is meant to be inclusive and cross-sectoral.

However, are the various groups really talking about the same subject?

The problem is that social, economic and environmental interests are not at the same level, they cannot be balanced and compromised like conflicting interests of, say, employers and employees. There is a qualitative difference between the

  1. On general expectations see eg Dodds, F. (ed), Earth Summit 2002. A New Deal (2000);

TheJo’burg Memo. Fairness in a Fragile World (2002).

  1. Which is the reason why Johannesburg’s focus was not stock-taking, but looking forward. The key theme was adjusting SD to globalization.

environmental dimension and the social-economic dimension of SD. The former is the prerequisite for the latter, as there are clearly limits to the environment’s capacity to provide the resource basis for socio-economic development. In other words, the natural sphere is paramount and cannot be compromised. The challenge of SD is, therefore, not to find the right “balance” or “compromise” between the natural sphere and the human sphere, but to adjust the human sphere to the conditions set by the natural sphere.15 This is a matter of ethics, not politics.

The theory of SD is older than the definition suggested by the Brundtland Report in 1987.16 The term SD first appeared in the World Conservation Strategy (1980) prepared by some of the world’s leading NGOs.17 Ecological sustainability is defined there as a precondition to development. Two years later, the UN General Assembly adopted the World Charter for Nature (1982) that set out the principles “by which human conduct affecting nature is to be guided and judged”.18 Although the Charter does not specifically refer to SD, it defines nature conservation as prerequisite for all forms of resource use and development planning. Notably, the Charter describes humanity as “part of nature” and states that “[e]very form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man”.19 The 1982 World Conservation Strategy was revised in 1991 under the title “Caring for the Earth: a strategy for sustainable living” to further define SD. The essence of SD is described as improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems.20 Its two requirements are firstly, the commitment to a new, non-anthropocentric ethic, based on respect and care for the Earth, and secondly, the integration of conservation and development.21

The 1992 NGO Global Forum in Rio produced a draft Earth Charter22 that expressively rejects the Rio Declaration’s anthropocentric definition of SD. Instead, it defines humans as part of the Earth, “our common home”.23 Human

  1. Bosselmann, K., “Justice and the Environment: Building Blocks for a Theory on Ecological Justice”, in: Bosselmann, K. & Richardson, B., Environmental Justice and Market Mechanisms (1999) 30 at 41–42; Dobson, A., Justice and the Environment. Conceptions of Environmental Sustainability and Dimensions of Social Justice (1998).
  2. “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” WCED, Our Common Future (1987).
  3. IUCN/UNEP/WWF, World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation For Sustainable Development (1980).
  4. Preamble of the World Charter for Nature (1983) 22 ILM 455.
  5. Ibid.
  6. IUCN/UNEP/WWF, Summary — Caring for the Earth (1991) 3–4.
  7. Ibid at 5; see also Boer, B., “Implementation of International Sustainability at a National Level” in Ginther, K. et al (eds), Sustainable Development and Good Governance (1995) 111 at 113.
  8. See Taylor, P., An Ecological Approach to International Law (1998) 324–27 and 379–81.
  9. Preamble.

development is not in the centre of the development of life, but mere part of it. The Rio Earth Charter gave way to an Earth Charter that was negotiated among thousands of NGOs and was finally adopted in 2000. This new Earth Charter,24 defined as an “ethical framework for sustainable development”, states respect for life in all its diversity as the ethical basis for SD.

All these international documents do not necessarily compete with SD agreements negotiated by States. Rather they fill the gaps that states have left by defining ethics and content of SD. If the fundamental ethical issues are overlooked, SD will, at best, support all kinds of concepts and, at worst, promote business-as-usual.

At the ethical level, the two competing models are the anthropocentric approach of the Rio Declaration (“weak sustainability”) and the ecocentric approach of the Earth Charter (“strong sustainability”). Governments and business tend to favour the former, civil society (ie, NGOs, social movements and indigenous peoples) favour the latter.25

4. The Weakness of the UNCED Process

Right from the beginning, the seeds of economic neo-liberalism were built into the Rio discourse. Chapter 2 of Agenda 21, for instance, recommended “promoting sustainable development through trade liberalization and making trade and environment mutually supportive” (Art 3). Governments were therefore expected “to take into account the results of the Uruguay Round and to promote an open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system” (Art 9). While a neo-liberal prejudice could be detected here, Rio was doing no more than helping to frame the sustainability agenda in terms of growth and free trade. The agenda itself was set elsewhere, ie two years later in Marrakech where governments established a new global decision-making body, the World Trade Organisation (WTO). While Rio promoted the effective authority of states in favour of the public good, Marrakech weakened the regulatory power of states in favour of free corporate mobility.26

  1. <>.
  2. Dobson, A., “Environmental Sustainability: An Analysis and Typology” (1996) 5 Environmental Politics 401 at 416;.Bosselmann, K., “Signposts for a Sustainable Community” 2002 Winter Lecture Series, <>. The strong sustainability model is also supported by the NZ Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE); PCE, Creating our Future: Sustainable Development for New Zealand (2002) 7.
  3. The Jo’burg Memo, supra note 13, at 12.

The process of deregulation and privatization has severely undermined the sustainability discourse. The Rio-vision of a sustainable future faded when terms like “globalization”, “shareholder-value” and “stakeholders” began to dominate the political debate at both national and international level. Developing countries have found themselves as the losers of globalization, disappointed about the broken promises of industrial countries. And most people — in the South and the North

— found themselves struggling with short-term survival rather than long-term aspirations.

In addition, since the early 1990s globalization has reached new dimensions. It not only rules capitalism at a global scale, it has produced a number of new global effects, some pleasant (internet, travel), some unpleasant (poverty, terrorism), but all contributing to a sense of disorientation. Personal security and traditional values have been lost. 21st century global capitalism makes a mockery of the sentiment to walk gently on the Earth.

However, globalization cannot take the full blame for the weakening of the sustainability discourse. A number of causes are home-made. The design of the post-Rio UNCED process has, at least, three flaws:

  1. Lack of vision. The idea of sustainability as a holistic approach has vanished through sectoral processes of conventions and conferences. Divided-up into a multitude of applications and contexts, even experts have lost the sensitivity for the cross-sectoral, cross-cultural, inter-generational approach that the idea of SD initially suggested. The complexity of SD has been replaced by complicatedness. No ordinary person would, at present, be able to see the vision behind SD.
  1. Lack of context. The SD discourse is too focussed on environmental issues leaving too little for the overall (socio-economic) context. This nurtures the impression of SD as “just” an environmental issue. While environmental experts within government or business talk about SD, their leaders go about their usual business. Consequently, short-term economic thinking has not been transformed to more complex SD thinking.
  1. Lack of partnership. The vision of a global partnership — after September 11, 2001 more needed than ever — has been lost. Instead of being in an ongoing intercultural dialogue, industrial countries occupy themselves with economic prosperity and free trade. Developmental and cultural relations are conducted by institutions that may have expertise, but lack an overall concept.

These flaws point to a major lack of commitment. The concept of SD behind the UNCED process is too little defined and too little supported by governments.

Their agenda has been driven by issues of economic globalization rather than issues of SD.27

Instead of a new agenda, states have created a new international SD bureaucracy. There a numerous new institutions and initiatives, both at international and national levels. We will see in the following, how they have operated and what they have achieved.


Little consistency exists between the various forms of the global SD process. These forms can be distinguished as (1) governmental initiatives; (2) business and industry involvement; and (3) NGOs/civil society activities. While governments have mostly been concerned with institutions and procedures, and business mainly with public relations, civil society has focussed on content and empowerment. Such differences are not just strategic, but substantial. As a result, there is a plethora of ideas, but no vision common to all forms of the global SD process.

The overall progress of SD can be measured by the question whether it has gained profile and prominence in the various decision-making processes. This is certainly not the case. Nevertheless, the experiences made since 1992 should increase chances for a consensus on how such profile could be gained.

1. Governmental Initiatives

The various levels of governmental initiatives include the international, national and local level. However, the three levels are hardly connected and, to an extent, counterproductive. Acting through their international representatives, governments often pursue national economic interests rather than a genuine SD agenda. At the international level, specific commitments to SD are unlikely if they are opposed to domestic economic growth and competitiveness. State representatives may be more concerned with SD within mere advisory bodies like, for example, UNEP, but decisions reached there are of little importance to domestic policies.

The commitment towards SD may be very different at the national level. States differ substantially in their efforts to implement SD. Some countries have national SD strategies or even mechanisms for their implementation, while others have merely a working group established or loose policy papers adopted. The issue here is how countries can learn from each other. At the local level, SD is

  1. Sachs, W., Wie zukunftsfähig ist die Gloablisierung? Über ökonomische Entgrenzung und ökologische Begrenzung (2000). Johannesburg marked the (preliminary?) peak of this drive.

most advanced. The global Local Agenda 21 process includes many communities around the world that have not only strategies, but also effective implementation mechanisms in place.

(a) International institutions

One of the most important measures following-up from Rio was the UN General Assembly’s establishment of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD)28 that began to operate in 1994. The CSD examines the progress made in the implementation of Agenda 21 at the international, regional and national levels. It has the important function to not only monitor the SD process within the UN system, but also coordinate inter-governmental decision-making towards SD. To some extent, the Commission is responsible for co-ordinating the global SD process.

The Commission has adopted a framework program for nine years (until 2003) in various areas, among them critical elements of sustainability, such as combating poverty or measuring SD through indicators, financial resources and mechanisms, education, decision-making structures and roles of major groups (as defined by Agenda 21). The distant observer may get the impression of the CSD as an effective tool for implementing SD.

The reality is far from it.29 Unlike the powerful WTO, the CSD has no decision- making function. While CSD delegates may discuss key issues of North-South relations, their conclusions have no influence on the negotiations of WTO. The prospects of SD are primarily being decided by WTO. The goal of GATT is to progressively eliminate national barriers to free trade and investment. Environmental and social standards are principally seen as unjustified trade barriers, while the SD philosophy holds the opposite. It views environmental and social standards as pre-requites of international economic relations. CSD is in no position to promote such a philosophy successfully.

Apart from its weak institutional status, CSD also suffers from insufficient support of its fifty-three UN member states. Members of national delegations are in most cases environmental ministers and their senior staff. Industrial countries, in particular, do not provide broader representation. The portfolios of economics, finance, agriculture, transport or foreign trade include key areas of

  1. G.A. Res. 47/191, Dec. 22 1992, 5 Weston V.A.7. Kiss & Shelton, supra note 6 at 90/91.
  2. See Stephan, P., “Die Kommission für Nachhaltige Entwicklung (CSD): “Talkshop” der Vereinten Nationen oder wirksame Institution zur Umsetzung der AGENDA 21?” in: Fues, T. & Hamm, B. (eds), Die Weltkonferenz der 90er Jahre. Baustellen für Global Governance (2001).

SD. They determine the direction and success of SD. If they are not part of national delegations to the CSD, its decisions carry little weight.

To date, not a single CSD decision has caused a change of national policies. In fact, its decisions are hardly taken note of by parliaments and governments. The small groups of experts dealing with CSD matters have more communication with their colleagues in foreign (environmental) ministries than with their own government. The powerful ministries, such as treasury, take an interest only, if the economic performance is feared to be affected.

Of other international institutions, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a subsidiary organ of the UN, has a supportive function for the SD process.30 UNEP’s programming includes areas such as environmental assessment, environmental management and also the relationship between environment and development. Many of UNEP’s thousand or so projects have some significance for SD, in particular for its practical application (technology, project planning, monitoring etc.). But UNEP has also an overall responsibility for the development of international environmental law. It acts by liaising with environmental law organizations (of inter-governmental or non-governmental nature) and by actively promoting new environmental law initiatives, a mandate given by Agenda 21. The current Program for the Periodic Development and Periodic Review of Environmental law (known as “Montevideo II”)31 addresses issues such as public participation, implementation of international law, adequacy of existing environmental instruments, etc. UNEP also provides technical and financial assistance to developing countries in drafting environmental legislation. While UNEP’s activities contribute to an international infrastructure that facilitates the SD process, the aims of the process are hardly influenced by them. UNEP has no mandate to promote the content and scope of SD, nor does it have enough political weight like, in particular, WTO, to force states to change

their behaviour.

(b) National sustainability strategies

The development of national sustainability strategies was one of the more concrete measures adopted in Rio. Their purpose is to identify sustainability as a guiding principle for national policy development and to ensure that all policy areas are included. Ideally, national governments shift their policy focus from economics to SD.

  1. Kiss & Shelton, supra note 6 at 86–90.
  2. UNEP G.C. Decision 187/25 (1993); the Programme concerns the period 1992–2002.

Until mid 2001, sixty32 of the 176 nations participating at Rio had adopted national sustainability strategies, however, with different qualities. Many of these strategies remain vague, leaving open, for example, how sustainability objectives translate to political action (eg, within the governmental organization).

A good example has been set by the Netherlands.33 Described by commentators as “the best job of technical environmental planning done by any nation to date”,34 the Dutch national strategy on SD penetrates all policy areas, provides for full public participation and sets targets and timetables for incrementally shifting economic growth fixations to sustainability objectives.

One key issue is the adequate, effective representation of SD considerations within the governmental system. In the case of Germany, the Government initially appointed a National Committee for Sustainable Development comprising of experts (mainly scientists) and designed to make recommendations. The Committee not only lacked broad enough representation, it also lacked political weight. That is why the Advisory Commission of the Bundestag “Protection of Humans and the Environment” recommended, in 1998, the establishment of a more powerful Council for Sustainable Development that would have the task of making sustainability a prime political goal (eg, as a constitutional principle). The Council would also be responsible for developing a national sustainability strategy. In April 2000, the Council was established as a high-powered body with 17 members from a variety of social interest groups (however, not to represent their organizations, but to work towards a common goal).35 It began its work mid 2001.

The role of the Council is to draft a national sustainability strategy, to advise on its concrete implementation and to organise a nation-wide dialogue on sustainability.36 Its first results are expected before the 2002 World Summit in Johannesburg.

An independent, yet influential body such as the German Council for Sustainable Development is probably the best vehicle not only for a national sustainability strategy, but also for closely monitoring its implementation.

(c) Local Agenda 21

Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 highlights the special role of local communities for the implementation of SD. Citizens are most affected where they live and work.

  1. New Zealand not among them.
  2. Stanhope, R., “A Vision for the Future? The Concept of Sustainable Development in the Netherlands and New Zealand” (2000) 4 NZJEL 147–180.
  3. Johnston, H.D., Green Plans: Greenprint for Sustainability (1995) 45.
  4. <>.
  5. <>.

They should, therefore, be in a position to directly influence the way policies are drafted and executed.

The initial aim of the local Agenda 21 process that began in Rio was that by 1996 the SD process should be incorporated in all communities world-wide. That proved too ambitious. By 2000 some 5,000 communities and local governments were involved, among them 3,400 in Europe alone.37

There are a variety of approaches to local SD strategies and their implementation. Not all have made a difference. Experiences in Europe have shown that more often than not local Agenda 21 initiatives were just conventional environmental policies under a new name. Often social issues are neglected and the North/South dimension overlooked.

But equally, there are excellent examples of SD to learn from. Typically, communities have established “roundtables” bringing together the various groups to discuss local policies before they reach decision-making bodies. SD groups participate in the development of local budgets, establish partnerships with communities in the South or provide for special participation of women, youth and indigenous people (as demanded by Agenda 21). Such innovations can make a major difference for the outcome of decision-making processes. If carried through they would demonstrate the importance and strength of civil society.

On the other hand, the local Agenda 21 process is often hindered by central governments. Local SD strategies reach their limits quickly if they are not sufficiently supported by national networks of SD communities and central governments providing national SD goals and strategies.

At the global level, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has been very successful. Since 1990, ICLEI has worked with many hundreds of local governments to implement SD practices. It has further lobbied for strict implementation of climate change obligations. ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection Program has led to reduced greenhouse gas emissions in 400 cities and towns in 42 countries representing more than eight percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse emissions.

Some Mayors have noted that ICLEI’s contribution to the global SD process has been more significant than the contributions of national governments.38 The 600 million people living in local Agenda 21 communities represent a much larger portion than the population in many industrial countries priding themselves on national sustainability strategies.

  1. Stephan, P., “Lokale Agenda 21” im Zeitalter der Globalisierung, epd-Entwicklungspolitik, (2001) 24–27.
  2. Conversation with Beate Weber, Mayor of the City of Heidelberg/Germany; 9 Oct 2001. Similarly Bob Harvey, Mayor of Waitakere City, points out that 80 per cent of the world lives in cities and “collectively can ... change the world”; “An eco-mayor’s view of the World Summit” (2002) 17 NZ Environment 9, 11.

2. The Business and Industrial Sector

Given the lack of national governments’ progress towards SD, the activities of business and industry have gained a lot of attention. Private economic activities are, of course, of crucial importance for a sustainable strategy. On the one hand, the private sector is the main part of the problem, on the other hand, it also holds the key for technological and financial solutions.

Although many companies have SD in their banners, a closer look is warranted. Sometimes SD is no more than clever image policy. The managerial level of multinational companies, in particular, may be interested in SD, but only if it is good for business. Then there is a group of multinationals with much publicised initiatives towards less unsustainable practices. Examples include Unilever’s initiative to control overfishing in the oceans or the various investments into renewable energy resources by BP, Amoco or Shell.

Whether such initiatives have a lasting effect beyond marketing strategies remains to be seen. Business self-regulation and voluntary agreements are an important part of environmental policy strategies. However, their success is determined not by the number of businesses and companies “going green” in some form, but by qualitative changes. As long as ecological principles are not implemented in the core structures of economic and financial policy of the capitalist state, the private economic sector is not likely to change.39

An effective means to reach the core structures of capitalism are those that regulate the flow of capital. Examples include ecological taxes and a green budget reform that introduces sustainability indicators in gross domestic product accounting. Further, making banks and insurance firms accountable to SD objectives in their lending and investment decisions. For a long time, the banking sector has totally ignored the Rio process. By 2001, a group of 174 investment firms had joined UNEP’s “Finance Initiative” aiming for a SD discourse.

Encouraging signs are, for example, new ways to assess stock markets. The Zurich-based Sustainable Asset Management (SAM) group together with Dow Jones have, in late 1999, introduced the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. According to SAM, shares of “sustainable companies” gain a higher value than others. A lot depends on the right selection of criteria for such accounting system; however, it may help to bring SD from its current periphery into the mainstream of economics. While multinational companies often make headlines with their activities, small business and innovative managers are the true champions of SD. There are national or local networks of “green business” in most OECD countries. Typically, they educate about putting SD into practice, promote individual examples of

  1. See Richardson, B., “Changing Regulatory Spaces: The Privatization of New Zealand Environmental Law”, in Bosselmann & Richardson, supra note 15, 209 at 230.

effective resource use or lobby for a vision of SD that suits both business and the environment. In addition, some visionary business leaders can have an enormous impact on how society at large perceives SD; if even business believes in it, SD may be important to all of us.

Such signs of greening the economy are, however, not necessarily pointing into the right direction. To become a fundamental economic principle, SD needs to change the way we think about economic success. As long as growth figures, profits and competitiveness are equalled with economic success, sustainability is hardly more than a moral plea for decent behaviour. The green soloists are still silenced by the entire orchestra (of big business, economic lobbyists, the media and Government) and their message that a “healthy, strong” economy is pre- conditional to sustainability.

Economic success needs to be re-defined as beneficial not just to shareholders, but to all involved in the economic process, i.e., workers and consumers as well as the entire social and natural environment. SD clearly reflects such broader perception of the economic success.

3. NGOs and Civil Society

Chapters 23 to 32 of Agenda 21 are devoted to the “major groups” of civil society, i.e., women, children/youth, indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), communities, trade unions, private business and sciences. They all have a key role in the promotion of SD. However, they are organized in very different ways and to varying degrees. It does not mean very much per se to be a female, a young or an indigenous person. The specific role that each of these groups (together more than 80% of the world’s population!) may have, gets little attention. The political system favours organized groups over sheer numbers and powerful lobbyists over groups in need. Given the system’s bias towards economic interests, the power of people most interested in SD is a mere hope for the future.

Among the various “major groups”, the only influential group is the category of NGOs. These can be loosely described as representing members of most other groups, but not primarily representing their specific roles or viewpoints. The common denominator of NGOs is their interest in the environment. Depending on their make-up and purpose, they pursue either weak or strong forms of SD.

Most NGOs operate at local or national level, and many are linked to regional or international networks. But only NGOs that operate internationally have found sufficient recognition to influence the global SD discourse. Again, there are enormous variations in terms of goals, organisational structure, strategies and political influence. While everybody knows Greenpeace, the most powerful force is the transnational free market movement whose activists and NGOs most people would never hear of.

Despite such discrepancies, the globalization of non-State actors has been a development of historical proportions, most probably the single biggest event in recent history. Non-state actors are behind the globalization of markets, technologies and communication systems and will also be involved in the make- up of global governance to control globalization. There is no choice for States, but to accept non-State actors as participants in global governance.

Currently, 185 States, more than 40,000 NGOs and over 6,000 intergovernmental organizations are involved in international relations.40 This itself indicates a power shift from States to global civil society. However, civil society is not a homogenous entity and does not speak with one voice. The minority of economic non-State actors dominates over the majority of other non-State actors. To put it bluntly, present economic global governance needs to be replaced by democratic global governance. This will be the only hope for global SD.

For this to happen, NGOs have a crucial responsibility. Already, they shape policies and decisions in countries, intergovernmental organizations and international institutions. Their credibility is based on effective protest and political expertise. Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature, for example, operate through their own SD projects and public protests, but equally through participating at conferences and in decision-making bodies. In various cases, they are directly involved with policies of (multinational) companies. At political levels, they participate in official delegations for international conferences.

Many governments (eg, USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand) have adopted the practice of including NGO representatives in their delegations for international negotiations. Likewise, NGO representatives are regular participants at national bodies like governmental committees, select committees, advisory boards etc. The years since Rio have seen a dramatically increased incorporation of NGOs into governmental decision-making systems.

While such incorporation means more political power for NGOs, it comes with serious risks. One is the political split between professionally acting NGOs and grass-root NGOs. Rather than strengthening the voice of the global environmental movement, there may be a perception that NGOs with governmental involvement or UN-affiliations represent “the” environment. This would undermine the overall pressure that the environmental movement has been able to build up and discriminate against grass-root groups that are, for example, opposed to the entire UNCED process.

A second risk is political compromising. Being part of governmental decision- making processes creates new responsibilities and internal pressures. As a result, compromises may be reached at a level unacceptable to what NGOs have set themselves up for.

  1. Kiss & Shelton, supra note 6 at 22.

A third risk is disappearance of the central issue. Any institution of experts, bureaucrats and professionals is at risk of losing the big picture. Often, NGO representatives find themselves occupied with politics, running from one appointment to another. They convert to experts for specific issues to which they respond quickly, but stop debating the central political issues. Core values such as justice and sustainability can easily get lost.

Such risks could amount to a new dilemma. If NGOs have been seeing themselves as part of the solution, they might also become part of the problem. After all, the success of NGOs has been to reject the logic of governments, not to follow it. The only justification for direct cooperation with governments, therefore, is to change the logic of governments. At present, there is no proof such change. Merely increasing SD bureaucracy is not good enough.


The Rio+10 World Summit for Sustainable Development was destined to be a milestone on the road to SD. But Rio and Rio+5 had been milestones, too, and many more may be needed before States actually walk the road. Conferences and new international commitments may be useful, but the implementation of existing ones is more urgent.

Realistically, Johannesburg could never be expected to make a great difference in this regard. Any real progress towards SD would have to come from countries themselves, in their own territories. Governments have been too slow and too little concerned. The only phases of increased SD activities have been during the preparations and follow-ups of Rio, Rio+5 and Rio+10. Such periods of activities offer the greatest opportunity for progress.

The outcome of Rio+5 was sobering. The UN Special General Assembly in New York found it difficult to add anything to what Rio had already said. Progress since Rio was so insignificant, that the States’ delegates at the General Assembly choose not to talk about it. Instead, they adopted a document (“Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21”)41 that merely summarized the Rio agreements. Its Preamble (“Statement of Commitment”) simply confirmed the validity of the Rio agreements. The main part of this document repeated the areas for urgently needed action that Rio had identified five years earlier: climate change, biodiversity, combating poverty, change of production and consumption patterns in industrialized countries, efficiency of energy and transport, protection of soils and water resources. With the exception of an initiative towards the protection of fresh waters, the document contains no call for concrete action.

  1. General Assembly Resolution, A/Res./S-19/2 of 19 Sept 1997.

In view of such meagre results, a group of four countries (Brazil, Germany, Singapore and South Africa) suggested a Global Initiative for Sustainable Development” at the end of the conference. This initiative listed various measures such as the inclusion of environmental protection in the UN Charter, a reform of UNEP, the adoption of a climate change protocol with concrete targets and timetables and the development of a global convention for the protection of forests. The fact that only four countries agreed on such requests indicates the lack of commitment and consensus at the New York conference.

The “discovery” of globalization as a challenge to SD had already been made at the Rio+5 conference. Its final document stated:

The five years that have elapsed since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development have been characterized by the accelerated globalization of interactions among countries in the areas of world trade, foreign direct investment and capital markets. Globalization presents new opportunities and challenges. It is important that national and international environmental and social policies be implemented and strengthened in order to ensure that globalization trends have a positive impact on sustainable development, especially in developing countries.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the preparatory process towards the Rio+10 conference was not shaped by SD controlling economic globalization, but by economic globalization controlling SD. This became plain in the aftermath of the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha (November 2001) that launched a new round of free trade negotiations. The three Preparatory Committee meetings of 200242 changed their language and focus. No longer referring to a “Rio+10” Summit, the central point of reference became “Doha”. Neither a general stock-taking nor new agreements were sought, but merely ways to reconcile “Doha” with SD. The new focus became “partnerships” between governments and the private sector. Effectively, this focus allowed the private sector to select aspects of SD convenient for implementation.43

Following the disappointing final PrepCom in Bali (June 2002), hopes for success faded even more. Eventually, less than half of the expected 65,000 delegates made it to Johannesburg. The final agenda made it clear that “sustainable development” would not be negotiated, only “development”. Ten years of globalisation had reversed the States’ approach to SD. While Rio aimed for sustainability to guide economic and social progress, Johannesburg aimed for economic and social progress to guide sustainability.

  1. PrepCom 1 to 3 were held from 31 April to 3 May 2001, 28 January to 8 February 2002 and 25 March to 5 April 2002 (all in New York). The final Prepcom 4 was held in Bali from 27 May to 7 June 2002.
  2. Bruno, K., “The Earth Summit’s Deathblow to Sustainable Development” CorpWatch, 2 September 2002.

The perceptions of delegates followed the divide between governments and business vs. civil society. To government negotiators and business lobbyists, issues such as trade relations, poverty concerns, access to water, better sanitation or new partnerships appeared as mere implementations of the Rio principles.

Civil society delegates had the opposite impression. Rather than seeing “Rio Plus 10” they perceived Johannesburg to be “Rio Minus 10”. Rio principles had vanished in favour of a sell-out to WTO and big business. The “privatisation of the Rio agenda”44 could be physically felt in big corporate displays around the Convention Centre, the presence of over 1000 business executives and, most symbolically, in the absence of US President Bush. The US Government had no time for negotiations and, instead, led the campaign for public-private partnerships.

While the paralysing diplomacy of the United States was no surprise, perhaps the greatest disappointment was the European Union’s cottoning up to the US blockade strategy.45 Virtually all attempts by other states and civil society groups towards targets, timetables, institutional reforms, corporate accountability or removal of subsidies failed thanks to US–EU alliances.

As far as official results are concerned, the WSSD produced two outcome documents: a seven-page Political Declaration expressing commitments and direction for implementing sustainable development, and a negotiated 100-page Plan of Implementation to guide government activities (“Type 1 outcomes”). Most NGOs criticised both the declaration and the action plan for not providing real new commitments, targets and funding for implementation. The Summit also resulted in Partnership Initiatives (“Type 2 outcomes”). These initiatives, voluntary and non-binding, include action oriented programmes between governments, business or civil society. Analysts often saw these initiatives as a possibility to deliver some results without really committing governments to hard action.

When the World Summit ended, governments congratulated each other for the successful outcome of the summit. Civil society described the summit as a missed opportunity to come up with a meaningful plan of concrete targets, timeframes and funding for implementation of Agenda 21. NGOs blame mostly the United States for blocking meaningful progress, with the European Union being too weak in the negotiations and the G77/China keen on getting new funding for their development. The strongest feelings were aroused by the lack of agreed targets on renewable energy, another EU priority.46 In the final phase of the Johannesburg Summit, the European Union submitted a declaration of like-minded

  1. Kelsey, J., “Reflections on the World Summit on Sustainable Development W$$D: The Road from Doha to Cancun, via Johannesburg”. Unpublished paper presented to the Institute of International Affairs, Auckland Branch, 2 October 2002, at 5.
  2. Bosselmann, K., “Was It Worth Being At The World Summit?” (2002) 17 NZ Environment 8.
  3. “WSSD on energy — nothing for the poor, nothing for the climate”; WWF press release, 3 September 2002.

countries on increasing the share of renewable energies. In this declaration, the signatory states commit themselves to ambitious objectives at global, regional and national level, with clear schedules, for the increased use of renewable energies.47 Apart from that, limited targets were agreed in the Implementation Plan on issues such as biodiversity loss, restoration of fish stocks and the use of toxic chemicals.

The outcome documents more explicitly acknowledge the links between poverty alleviation and environmental protection than the outcome documents of the Rio Earth Summit 1992. And, despite all fears, the World Summit did not sacrifice the precautionary principle48 and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility.49

The lowest denominator would probably be: it could have been worse. At the very least, Johannesburg did not reverse the commitments made in the Doha trade round and the Monterrey summit on finance for development. At best, it forged a greater sense of urgency to live up to commitments made at Rio ten years ago. About two-thirds of the final Plan of Implementation consists of reiterations of earlier commitments. Precisely two new and specific targets in the whole Plan of Implementation can be identified: To halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation; and to eliminate destructive fishing practices by 2012. In every other case existing commitments are simply reaffirmed, watered down, or dropped altogether.50

Johannesburg leaves us with many issues of unfinished business. And no issue is more urgent than implementation. It can be summarized in four points:

  1. Removing obstacles to implementation. The factors undermining the implementation of SD need to be analysed. Most importantly, States and non-States actors have to reach a common understanding of the content of SD: what is included, what is not included and how can progress towards SD be measured?
  1. Creating tools for enforcement. People in society have to be convinced that their future depends on whether sustainability becomes a fundamental principle of policy and law. SD needs to be a defined, enforceable principle. For example, there might be sufficient support for ideas like strengthening
  1. “The Way Forward on Renewable Energy”. Joint declaration by the EU, several European states and others, September 2002.
  2. Requiring action even if evidence of potential future damage to Earth’s ecosystem is not conclusive.
  3. While all nations share responsibility, rich countries are expected to shoulder more of the financial burden than poor countries.
  4. “Earth Summit Betrayal; See You All in Mexico”; Friends of the Earth press release, 3 September 2002.

UNEP, working towards a global environmental agency or promoting a world organization for environment and development.

  1. Intensifying networks. Sustainability initiatives and projects around the world must be linked more closely. Being part of (global) networks helps to see the importance of individual activities for the global course.
  1. Dialogue with the South. The North has to accept responsibility for increasing the poverty gaps between North and South. This includes debt release and financing of SD strategies in the South.

The fact, that Johannesburg has made so little progress may, however, be its most positive outcome and lasting legacy for many years to come. If States are still not committed to the sustainability agenda, they will lose any remainders of leadership. Already the leadership vacuum is being filled by civil society. Virtually all SD initiatives come from civil society groups, governments merely follow (at best).

In the light of States’ apparent failure, the future struggle for sustainability will be between big business and civil society (including small business) and the different value systems they represent. So far, the best description of a value system for civil society is the Earth Charter. The Earth Charter,51 dubbed “the ethical framework for sustainable development”, represents the most elaborate global consensus on SD to-date. It insists on the need of new ethics and defines the four pillars of sustainability:

In Johannesburg, civil society promoted the Earth Charter as its founding document and benchmark for the future.52 It will be interesting to see how long it will take for States to start cooperating with civil society in this regard.

  1. <>. See also Taylor, P., “The Earth Charter” (1999) 3 NZJEL 193–203, and the website of the national Earth Charter campaign Earth Charter Aotearoa New Zealand (ECANZ) <>.
  2. Rockefeller, S., “The Earth Charter and the Johannesburg Summit”, Sept. 2002;



Resource Management Law Association

of New Zealand Inc.

The Resource Management Law Association is a national multi-disciplinary organisation with over 800 members, providing information, services seminars and other opportunities for members who are involved in private practice, industry and all levels of government.

Membership of the RMLA is relevant to lawyers, planners, environmental scientists and managers, engineers and architects, valuers and surveyors, business people, government and local authority officers, and anyone else with an interest in the area.

The object of the Association is to promote within New Zealand an understanding of resource management law and its implementation in a multi- disciplinary framework; excellence in resource management policy and practice; resource management processes that are legally sound, effective and efficient and that produce high-quality environmental outcomes.

The Association holds regular seminars on items of topical interest, an annual conference, and other events on a regular basis around the country. Most of these seminars and other events are organised by Regional Committees which have been established in Auckland, Northland, Waikato/Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, Nelson/Marlborough, Canterbury and Otago/Southland.

Resource Management Journal, the Association’s journal, is published three times a year in A4 format and circulated to all Association members. It provides up-to-date information on resource management issues, and is designed to keep our members advised of current law and practice on all aspects of resource management matters. It provides members with a public forum for their views, as articles are written largely by Association members who are experts in their particular field.

If you are active in any area of resource management, you should belong to the RMLA. Annual subscription is only $125.00 per annum (from 1 October in any year), and student membership costs only $60.00 per annum.

For further information, contact the Association’s Executive Officer,

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