The World Summit on Sustainable Development was organized by the United Nations (UN) and took place from 26 August to 4 September 2002, at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. This marked the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) which took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972, and the10th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (also known as the Earth Summit) which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. The 2002 summit is also informally known as "Rio+10".
Tens of thousands participated in this World Summit including a World Summit on Sustainable Development bureau appointed by the UN, heads of State and Government, national delegates and leaders from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, and other major groups. The summit focused the world's attention toward meeting difficult challenges, including improving people's lives and conserving natural resources, with ever-increasing demands for food, water, shelter, sanitation, energy, health services and economic security.
The summit was called in large part to assess world developments in sustainability since the 1992 Earth Summit, and to evaluate the effectiveness of Agenda 21 and other agreements reached at the 1992 meeting. Attendees assessed the effectiveness of Agenda 21, to what extent countries had kept up their commitment to the agenda, how challenges to sustainability had changed, and how to properly address new challenges. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, outlined five topic areas which were to be the key points of discussion at the summit: (1) Water and sanitation, (2) Energy, (3) Human health, (4) Agricultural productivity, and (5) Biodiversity and ecosystem management.
Few expected the 2002 WSSD to be as impressive as UNCED. Held to mark the tenth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit and to take stock of progress on Agenda 21 in those 10 years, the run-up to Johannesburg was singularly dismal and uninspiring. The world had, once again, changed. The high hopes of a new era of global environmental cooperation that had been ignited by Rio, soon proved false. The industrialized countries of the North had remained unwilling to provide the developing countries of the South with the resources or support that had been implied at Rio, meanwhile the promise of a post-Rio harvest of global environmental treaties and implementation proved unfounded as key states, particularly but not solely the United States, dragged their feet on key issues such as climate change. As a result, a malaise had set in well in advance of WSSD which was only made worse by events at the geopolitical level, where the global mood had gone sour after the tragic terrorist attack on the U.S. and a growing sense of insecurity and violence around the world. WSSD was different from both Stockholm and Rio in that it was not born within the optimism and high hopes that had accompanied earlier summits .
In terms of sustainable development, the World Summit on Sustainable Development had the distinction of actually having those two magic words in its very title. However, little had been achieved in the 10 years since Rio on other counts, Johannesburg was testimony to the fact that the term ‘sustainable development' had gained policy acceptance. Even though some argued that the term had lost its ‘edge’ and was mostly being used rhetorically, the fact remained that it had also become a political necessity. For those who believed in the concept, this was a chance to put meaning into it. At best, Johannesburg was viewed as a chance to advance the agenda that had been set by Rio; at the very least, it was an attempt to keep the Rio agenda alive.
It became clear fairly early on in the Johannesburg process that WSSD would not be able to match the ambition or scope of UNCED; certainly not in terms of its products. Like Stockholm and Rio before it, the Johannesburg Summit also sought a political Declaration as its principal output. In addition, it also sought a Plan of Implementation; one that was much less ambitious in scope or scale than Agenda 21 but more extensive than the Stockholm Plan of Action. The major innovation at Johannesburg were the so-called ‘Type 2’ agreements. These were informal agreements involving non-state parties, sometimes amongst themselves and sometimes with individual governments. On the one hand, Type 2 agreements were a reflection of the massive change in landscape that had occurred over the previous 10 years, with NGOs and business taking a far more important role in international environmental affairs. At the same time, however, they were a reflection of the WSSD organizer’s desperation and desire to get something memorable out of the summit. According to the rough count by the summit organizers, over 220 Type 2 agreements were reached at Johannesburg, signifying around US$ 235 million in pledged resources; thirty-two of these Type 2 agreements relate to energy, accounting for US$ 26 million in resources; the vast majority of these are programmes of technical cooperation in energy generation and conservation. It should be noted that a systematic accounting of these agreements has not yet been accomplished, and it is not yet clear how many of these agreements and how much of these resources are, in fact, new and unique. The other innovation at Johannesburg, in comparison to previous summits, relates to the fact that the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation sought agreement on actual targets and timetables rather than simple statements of intent. While it is true that in many cases (including renewable energy) such targets and timetables were not forthcoming and in others they were merely restatements of targets that had already been set (such as in access to clean water), it is also true that in a few areas (such as sanitation) meaningful headway was made in terms of reaching agreement on targets and timetables where there had previously been none.
The Johannesburg Declaration was a principal outcome of the Summit. The declaration is a collection of general political statements, reaffirming a commitment to agreements made at the Rio de Janeiro summit and at the Stockholm Summit on the Human Environment 30 years prior. International cooperation, decreasing world poverty, special attention for developing nations, empowering women, and maintaining biodiversity, among other things, are outlined as key points to building a sustainable future. The document is meant to serve as a contract for the participants of the summit, binding them to the outlined agreements.
A Plan of Implementation laid down more specific goals for the nations and organizations that participated in the summit. Some of these goals include:
- The establishment of a solidarity fund to wipe out poverty. This fund would be sustained by voluntary contributions; however, developed nations are urged to dedicate 0.7% of their national income to this cause.
- Cutting in half by 2015 the proportion of the world’s population living on less than a dollar a day. This is a reaffirmation of a UN Millennium Summit goal.
- Cutting in half by 2015 the number of people who lack clean drinking water and basic sanitation
- Substantially increase the global share of renewable energy
- Cut significantly by 2010 the rate at which rare plants and animals are becoming extinct
- Restore (where possible) depleted fish stocks by 2015, and
- Halving the number of people suffering from hunger.
The results of the Johannesburg Summit have been criticized in subsequent years as being too vague and for setting weaker goals than those agreed upon in previous summits. The resolutions passed at the summit also lack the provisions for substantial enforcement, making it difficult to assess what progress was actually made. NGOs such as the Global Peoples Forum and Friends of the Earth have set forth recommendations to strengthen the Johannesburg goals, and The Earth Charter Initiative has proposed an Earth Charter as a replacement for the current political declaration. Whether or not the UN decides to make changes to the original Johannesburg documents, the real impact of the 2002 summit should become more clear in the coming decade.
- Earth Summit 2002
- UN brochure for the WSSD
- World Summit on Sustainable Development
- Najam, A., Poling, J.M., Yamagishi, N., Straub, D.G., Sarno, J., DeRitter, S.M. and Kim, E.M.: 2002, ‘From Rio to Johannesburg: Progress and prospects’. Environment, 44(7):26–38.