Sustainable development: Two lost decades

The UN Rio+20 conference will takes place in May 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. Twenty years on from the first Earth Summit on Environment and Development, it will be seen whether the international community will eventually find the path of sustainable development despite two lost decades. What is needed is a post-growth economy.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit the international community committed itself to the path of sustainable development. That signaled the birth of «outward-looking domestic policy» and the promise of a new development paradigm. The «Agenda 21» action programme approved at the time states: «The only way to assure ourselves of a safer, more prosperous future is to deal with environment and development issues together in a balanced manner. […]. We must fulfill basic human needs, improve living standards for all and better protect and manage ecosystems.»

In keeping with the polluter-pays principle, the industrialized countries assumed the main responsibility.

On the path of self-destruction

Developments over the past 20 years make a mockery of the Rio decisions. Key economic, social and environmental indicators are sounding the alarm. The earth's ecosystem is becoming increasingly out of joint. The ecological footprint of the industrialized countries exceeds what the earth can bear or regenerate. Deforestation continues unabated, the biodiversity is disappearing, clean water is becoming increasingly scarce and the oceans are being over-fished. The number of starving people is increasing, yet enormous areas are being used to grow fuel rather than food. The competition for non-renewable resources is becoming increasingly reckless. Climate change is the perfect illustration of our unsustainable production and consumption models.


Twenty years of «Rio» are tantamount to 20 years of collective policy failure. There was no will to introduce the paradigm shift. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was founded two years after the Earth Summit and the primacy of free trade established. Even as Heads of State insisted in Rio that the northern economic and development model could not be globalized, they were imposing it on the whole world through the WTO. Market opening was ensured through the possibility of harsh sanctions, whilst the environmental and social rules of Rio remained political and moral obligations. With the three Rio Conventions, which are binding international law, implementation has been and continues to be circumvented wherever possible – see the Kyoto Protocol.

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created to support the implementation of Agenda 21. It was a weak body from the start with no binding decision-making power. Its influence and ambitions waned from year to year.

There is no scenario for continuous and at the same time sustainable growth in a world that will have a population of 9 billion in 2015. What is needed instead is the fair distribution of what is available in order to afford all people on earth a life of dignity. The time has come to explore the conditions and possibilities of a post-growth economy...

Source : Alliance Sud. Translation: comengip translation services (french, english, spanish, portuguese)