From Stockholm to Rio de Janeiro: the Road to a Sustainable World


Forty years after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and twenty years after the first “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, the world community will meet again. This time at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), in short Rio+20: “the future we want”.

At this historical event, set on 5-6 June 2012, world leaders, along with thousands of participants from the private sector, NGOs and other groups, will come together to shape how we can reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet. Progresses will be reviewed and future steps will be outlined towards a more sustainable world.

The sustainability idea emerged in a series of meetings and reports during the 1970s and 1980s. A few highlights in the sustainable development timeline:

  • In 1972, the UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment marked the first great international meeting on how human activities were harming the environment and putting humans at risk. The conference has led to the establishment of numerous national environmental protection agencies and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
  • The 1980 World Conservation Strategy, prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) along with the UN Environment Program and the World Wildlife Fund, promoted the idea of environmental protection in the self-interest of the human species. 
  • In 1987, the UN-sponsored Brundtland Commission released “Our Common Future”, a report that captured widespread concerns about the environment and poverty in many parts of the world. This report contained the most frequently quoted definition of sustainable development:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. (pg 43)

The definition contains two key concepts; the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs. The Brundtland report also mentioned that economic development cannot stop, but it must change course to fit within the planet's ecological limits.

  • In 1992, world attention on sustainability peaked at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro. It brought together the heads or senior officials of 179 governments, and included the Earth Summit, the largest-ever meeting of world leaders. Rio produced two international agreements (the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change), two statements of principles (the Rio Declaration on environment and development and the non-binding Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests) and a major action agenda (Agenda 21) on worldwide sustainable development.
  • In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan and came into force on 2005. This international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The interest in sustainability that flourished during that period was accelerated by a series of incidents and discoveries, including the leak of poisonous gas from a chemical plant at Bhopal, India, the explosion and radioactive release from Chernobyl, Ukraine, the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer, leaking toxic chemical dumps, such as Love Canal, general fears about chemical contamination and conflicts over decreasing natural resources such as forests and fisheries.

The objectives of UNCSD for the Rio+20 are to secure renewed political commitment to sustainable development, to assess progress towards internationally agreed goals on sustainable development and to address new and emerging challenges. The Summit will also focus on two specific themes: a green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development and an institutional framework for sustainable development.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that Rio+20 would be a unique chance to discuss challenges and solutions to visualize and plan for “the future we want”. Rio+20 is historically important for humanity and should not be “just another UN conference.”