The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro, brought sustainable development to the forefront of the international policy agenda. A set of key principles (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development), a blue print for action to implement sustainability (Agenda 21) and three multilateral environmental agreements (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Combat of Desertification) represent the main outcomes of that conference and have informed the direction of international environmental and climate change law and governance since. Rio also led to the establishment of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to monitor progress on the agreed goals.
The consensus of the academic community gathered at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London at the end of March seemed to be that the pressure is indeed on, and change is needed – now.
The conference, pegged as the largest gathering of global experts on environmental and social issues in the lead up to Rio+20, aimed to send a clear message to those gathering in Brazil in June about the challenges the planet now faces. Indeed, the conference organisers, in a declaration on the state of the planet, said that safeguarding the Earth’s natural processes to ensure the wellbeing of civilisation was the defining challenge of our time.
Climate change, the global financial crisis and food, water and energy insecurity threaten civilisation as we know it – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General
The sense of urgency from speakers was palpable, and their warnings stark. Population growth, increasing urbanisation and ever-greater resource demand are placing increasingly unsustainable pressures on the natural system, with many systems now believed to be at thresholds or “tipping points” beyond which changes can not be reversed.