AGENDA 21 is one of five documents agreed during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992(1). Signed by 179 Heads of Government, it is a blueprint for sustainable development in the 21st century, aimed at providing a high quality environment and healthy economy for all the peoples of the world.
Commentators point to two major features of this agreement:
a) No longer can social, economic and environmental development be seen as separate issues, their interdependence has become clearly established.
b) It was formulated in negotiations involving an unprecedented number of people and range of organisations, an intensification of the process of global democratization seen as essential for the 21st century.
Agenda 21 is a guide for individuals, businesses and governments in making choices for less environmentally destructive developments, and ultimately a challenge to translate understanding into action in developing sustainable lifestyles. The alternative to this action is unacceptable levels of human suffering and environmental damage, as forecast in the 1987 Brundtland Report, "Our Common Future".
Agenda 21 sees sustainable development as a way to reverse both poverty and environmental degradation. A major theme is to eradicate poverty by giving poor people more access to the resources they need to live sustainably, including information and skills. It calls upon governments working in participation with international organisations, business, regional and local governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and citizens groups to develop national strategies for sustainable development in an ongoing process of consultation and global democratization from local to international levels from 1993/4 - 1997.
Sections of the Agenda 21 Overview:
Global Partnership and Participation
Agenda 21 Commitments
Overview of the Chapters
The Rio Declaration states that only a global partnership will ensure that all nations will have a safer and more prosperous future. The agreement includes the following ideas:
Agenda 21 consists of 40 chapters in four sections of overlapping and interrelated issues involved in sustainable development.
2. International Co-operation
3. Combating Poverty
4. Changing Consumption Patterns
5. Population and Sustainability
6. Protecting and Promoting Human Health
7. Sustainable Human Settlements
8. Making Decisions for Sustainable Development
9. Protecting the Atmosphere
10. Managing Land Sustainably
11. Combating Deforestation
12. Combating Desertification and Drought
13. Sustainable Mountain Development
14. Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development
15. Conservation of Biological Diversity
16. Management of Biotechnology
17 Protecting and Managing Oceans
18. Protecting and Managing Fresh Water
19. Safer Use of Toxic Chemicals
20. Managing Hazardous Wastes
21. Managing Solid Wastes and Sewage
22. Managing Radioactive Wastes
24. Women in Sustainable Development
25. Children and Youth in Sustainable Development
26. Strengthening the Role of Indigenous People
27. Partnership with NGOs
28. Local Authorities
29. Workers and Trade Unions
30. Business and Industry
31. Scientists and Technologists
32. Strengthening the Role of Farmers
33. Financing Sustainable Development
34. Technology Transfer
35. Science for Sustainable Development
36. Education, Training and Public Awareness
37. Creating Capacity for Sustainable Development
38. Organizing for Sustainable Development
39. International Law
40. Information for Decision Making
The following overviews outline the areas under consideration, but all sections (the social and environmental dimensions, the conservation of resources and the means of implementation including information) need to be taken into account
Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. The world is confronted with worsening poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. The disparities between the rich and poor continue.
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 fulfil basic human needs, improve living standards for all and better protect and manage ecosystems. No nation can secure its future alone; but together we can - in a global partnership for sustainable development.
Agenda 21, adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, reflects a global consensus and political commitment at the highest level on development and environment co-operation. The Agenda deals with both the pressing problems of to-day and the need to prepare for the challenges of the next century.
It recognizes that sustainable development is primarily the responsibility of governments, and this will require national strategies, plans and policies. The efforts of nations need to be linked by international co-operation through such organizations as the United Nations. The broadest public participation, and the active involvement of the non-governmental organizations and other groups should also be encouraged.
A partnership of the world's nations is essential for an efficient and equitable global economy that can help all countries to achieve sustainable development.
Poverty has so many causes that no one solution will solve all the problems in every country. The United Nations and its members should make the reduction of poverty a major priority.
The major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialized countries. Excessive demands and unsustainable lifestyles among the richer segments of humanity place immense stress on the environment. The poorer segments, meanwhile, are unable to meet food, health care, shelter and educational needs. This pattern, which aggravates poverty in the world, is a matter of grave concern.
The world's growing population and production, combined with unsustainable consumption patterns, is putting increasing stress on air, land, water, energy and other essential resources.
Human health depends on a healthy environment, including clean water, sanitary waste disposal and an adequate supply of healthy food. We must care for both human health and the health of our environment.
By the year 2000, half the world's people will be living in cities. The urbanization of society is part of the development process, and cities generate 60 percent of gross national product. A growing number of cities, however, are showing symptoms of the global environment and development crisis, ranging from air pollution to homeless street dwellers.
The way most people make decisions, whether in government, business or as individuals, separates economic, social and environmental factors. It is necessary to understand the links between environment and development in order to make development choices that will be economically efficient, socially equitable and responsible, and environmentally sound.
Our atmosphere is under increasing pressure from greenhouse gases that threaten to change the climate and from chemicals that reduce the ozone layer. Other pollutants, including those that cause acid rain, often travel long distances through the atmosphere to cause damage on land and water. In many parts of the world, these harmful substances often cross national borders before they land.
Increasing human demand for land and its natural resources is creating competition and conflicts. If we are going to meet human requirements in a sustainable manner, we must resolve these conflicts, and find more effective ways of using land and its natural resources.
Forests are a source of timber, firewood and other goods. They also play an important role in soil and water conservation, maintaining a healthy atmosphere and maintaining biological diversity of plants and animals. Forests are renewable and, when managed in a way that is compatible with environmental conservation, can produce goods and services to assist in development.
Desertification is the process of land degradation caused by variations in climate and by human impact. It particularly affects drylands that are already ecologically fragile. The most obvious impacts of desertification are the degradation of grazing lands, and a decline in food production. The results of drought and desertification include poverty and starvation.
Mountains are important sources of water, energy, minerals, forest and agricultural products and areas of recreation. They are storehouses of biological diversity, home to endangered species and an essential part of the global ecosystem. The fate of mountain ecosystems affects half the world's people. Mountain ecosystems are susceptible to soil erosion, landslides and the rapid loss of habitat and genetic diversity. Among mountain dwellers, there is widespread unemployment, poverty, poor health and bad sanitation. Most mountain areas are experiencing environmental degradation.
Hunger is already a constant threat to many people, and the world's long term ability to meet the growing demand for food and other agricultural products is uncertain.
The essential goods and services on our planet depend on the variety and variability of genes, species, populations and ecosystems. Biological resources feed and clothe us, and provide housing, medicines and spiritual nourishment. The loss of the world's biological diversity continues, mainly from habitat destruction, over-harvesting, pollution and the inappropriate introduction of foreign plants and animals. This decline in biodiversity is largely caused by humans, and represents a serious threat to our development.
Biotechnology uses traditional knowledge and modern technology to change the genetic material in plants, animals and microbes and create new products. It promises to make a significant contribution to better health, increased food production, better reforestation, more efficient industrial processes, decontamination of water and the cleanup of hazardous wastes. Most of the developments in modern biotechnology have been in the industrialized world. Biotechnology offers new opportunities for global partnerships between these countries - rich in technological expertise - and developing countries, which are rich in biological resources but lacking in funds and expertise to use them.
The oceans are an essential part of the global life-support system. They cover much of the Earth's surface, influence climate, weather and the state of the atmosphere and provide food and other resources for our growing world population. Oceans are under increasing environmental stress from pollution, over-fishing and degradation of coastlines and coral reefs.
Fresh water is vital for drinking, sanitation, agriculture, industry, urban development, hydro-power generation, inland fisheries, transportation, recreation and many other human activities. It is also critical for the healthy functioning of nature. In many parts of the world, there is widespread scarcity, gradual destruction and increased pollution of freshwater resources.
Chemicals are used throughout the world and are necessary to meet social and economic goals, but a better job must be made of reducing their health and environmental impacts. Some of the world's major industrial areas are so contaminated by chemicals that there is damage to human health, genetic structures and reproduction. In addition, long-range pollution is affecting the Earth's atmosphere and climate.
An increasing amount of hazardous waste is affecting human health and the environment, but many countries do not have the expertise to manage the problem. Governments often lack information about how much and what types of pollution are released, and what risk they pose to people and the environment. All national environmental protection plans should include targets for hazardous-waste reduction.
Rapidly growing quantities of garbage and sewage from cities pose threats to human health and the environment. Each year as many as 5.2 million people, including 4 million children, die from diseases caused by the improper disposal of sewage and solid waste. Urban wastes pollute the air, land and water over a wide area. In developing countries, less than 10 percent of urban wastes are treated, and only a small proportion of that treatment meets acceptable standards. By the end of the century, over 2 billion people will lack basic sanitation, and about half the urban population in developing countries will not have adequate waste disposal. Unsustainable consumption, particularly in industrialized nations, is increasing the amount and variety of wastes, and quantities could increase four to fivefold by the year 2025. By the end of the decade, waste-disposal costs could double or triple, particularly in industrialized countries, as disposal sites fill up and stricter environmental controls are imposed. The best way to cope with waste problems is through a waste-prevention approach, focused on changes in lifestyles and in production and consumption patterns.
Given their potential risks, the safe and environmentally sound management of radioactive wastes, including their minimization, transportation and disposal, is important.
Governments agreed to a great number of objectives, policies and mechanisms in Agenda 21, but it will take the commitment and genuine involvement of all groups in society to make these goals a reality. Broad public participation in policy development, combined with greater accountability, is essential to achieving sustainable development.
Individuals, groups and organizations need to know about and participate in environment and development decisions, particularly those which can affect their communities. For people to make informed decisions, national governments should give them access to all relevant information on environment and development issues. This includes information on products and activities that have or are likely to have a significant impact on the environment, and information on environmental protection measures.
Women have considerable knowledge and experience in managing and conserving natural resources. However, the role of women in achieving sustainable development has been limited by such barriers as discrimination and lack of access to schooling, and equal employment. Governments should consider developing strategies by the year 2000 to eliminate constitutional, legal, administrative, cultural, behavioural, social and economic obstacles to women's full participation in sustainable development and public life.
Countries should increase the proportion of women decision makers, planners, scientists, technical advisers, managers and extension workers in environment and development fields. It is important to eliminate female illiteracy, assure girls of universal access to primary and secondary education, and provide increased post-secondary training for women in sciences and technology.
Youth make up nearly one-third of the world's population, and they need a voice in determining their own future. Their active role in the protection of the environment and development is critical to the long-term success of Agenda 21. Development plans should ensure young people of a secure future, including a healthy environment, improved living standards, education and jobs.
Education levels should be increased so that by the year 2000, more than half the young men and women in every country will have a chance of secondary schooling or vocational training. Students should be taught about the environment and sustainable development throughout their schooling.
Children make up nearly half the population in many developing countries. In both developing and industrialized countries, children are highly vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation. Countries should combat human rights abuses against youth, especially young women and girls, and see that their children are healthy, adequately fed, educated and protected from pollution and toxic substances. Development strategies should deal with the entitlement of young people to natural resources.
Indigenous people, who represent a significant part of the world's population, depend on renewable resources and ecosystems to maintain their well-being. Over many generations, they have evolved a holistic, traditional scientific knowledge of their land, natural resources and environment. The ability of indigenous people to practise sustainable development on their lands has been limited by economic social and historical factors. Indigenous people should actively participate in shaping national laws and policies on the management of resources or other development processes that affect them. Governments and international organizations should recognize the values, traditional knowledge and resource management practices that indigenous people use to manage their environments, and apply this knowledge to other areas where development is taking place.
Non-governmental organizations play a vital role in the shaping and implementation of participatory democracy. In addition to their independence, non-governmental organizations have diverse and well-established expertise in fields needed to implement environmentally sound and socially responsible sustainable development. As a result, the global network of non-governmental organizations should be recognized and supported as partners in implementing Agenda 21. These groups can play an important role in helping society to agree on how to move away from unsustainable development patterns.
Governments should involve non-governmental organizations in sustainable development plans, making the best use of their abilities in such areas as education, alleviation of poverty and environmental protection and rehabilitation. The findings of non-governmental groups should be used by governments in shaping policies on sustainability.
Many of the problems and solutions listed in Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, so local authorities have a key role to play in making sustainable development happen. Local authorities, such as municipal governments, build and maintain such structures as drinking water systems and roads. They oversee the planning of housing and industrial development, set local environmental policies and help to implement national environmental policies. As the level of government closest to the people, they play a vital role in educating and mobilizing the public around sustainable development. By 1996, every local authority should have consulted its citizens and developed "a local Agenda 21" for the community.
Local officials should consult citizens and community, business and industrial organizations to gather information and build a consensus on sustainable development strategies. This consensus would help them reshape local programmes, policies, laws and regulations to achieve Agenda 21 objectives. The process of consultation would increase people's awareness of sustainable development issues.
Workers will be among those most affected by the changes needed to achieve sustainable development. Trade unions, which have experience in dealing with industrial change, have a vital role to play in achieving sustainable development. Governments, business and industry should foster the active and informed participation of workers and trade unions in shaping and implementing environment and development strategies at both the national and international levels. These strategies will affect employment policies, industrial strategies, labour adjustment programmes and technology transfers.
The goal is full employment which contributes to sustainable livelihoods in safe, clean and healthy environments, at work and beyond. Groups involving workers, employers and governments should be set up to deal with safety, health, environmental awareness and sustainable development. Unions and employers should design joint environmental policies, and set priorities to improve the working environment and the overall environmental performance of business. There is need for more worker education and training, both in occupational health and safety and in skills for sustainable livelihoods.
Responsible entrepreneurship can play a major role in improving the efficiency of resource use, minimizing wastes and protecting human health and environmental quality. Some enlightened business leaders are already implementing product stewardship in the management and use of resources. They are fostering openness and dialogue with employees and the public and are carrying out environmental audits and assessments of compliance with environmental laws and regulations. They are taking voluntary measures to see that their activities have minimal impact on human health and the environment.
It is important that everyone, from policy makers to the general public understand the roles that science and technology have to play in achieving environmental protection and human development. Better communication is needed, so that policy makers can get access to the best available knowledge to help them develop strategies for sustainable development. Greater dialogue would help scientists and technologists set research priorities and propose solutions for pressing problems. There is also a need for better communication between scientists and the public, so that policies will respond to public concerns.
Agriculture occupies one third of the land surface of the Earth, and is the central activity for much of the world's population. Indigenous people, rural dwellers and family farmers have been the stewards of much of the Earth's resources. However, farming, including fishing and forest harvesting, can be vulnerable to over exploitation and improper management in fragile and marginal areas. There is growing concern about the sustainability of agricultural production systems.
Very large investments are needed to implement the huge sustainable development programmes of Agenda 21 to which the world's nations committed themselves at Rio de Janeiro. Although most of the funding is to come from a country's own public and private sectors, many developing countries lack the resources and technology to deal with basic development issues and such major international problems as climate change and protecting biological diversity. Developing countries need to stimulate economic growth and social development and to eradicate poverty. These are essential conditions for global sustainability. Providing developing countries with adequate resources will serve the common interests of all nations and of future generations. The cost of inaction is likely to outweigh the financial costs of implementing Agenda 21.
To develop sustainably, all countries need access to training in the use of technologies that are cleaner and waste fewer resources. Environmentally sound technologies include not only the hardware but the know-how, services, equipment, organizational and managerial skills to make them work. Developing countries, in particular, require new and efficient technologies to achieve sustainable development, participate as partners in the global economy, protect the environment and to alleviate poverty and human suffering. They need to upgrade some current technologies and replace others with more environmentally sound substitutes. It is essential that developing countries get access to such technologies as well as the economic, technical and managerial skills to use and further develop them.
The global environment is changing faster than at any time in recent centuries. The next century could see significant environmental changes, and surprises may be expected. Human consumption of energy, water and non-renewable resources is increasing, and there may be shortages in many parts of the world, even if environmental conditions were to remain unchanged.
There is a need to increase people's sensitivity to, and involvement in, finding solutions for environment and development problems. Education can give people the environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour needed for sustainable development. To do this, education needs to explain not only the physical and biological environment, but the socio-economic environment and human development. Basic education is the underpinning for environment and development education. All countries should strive for universal access to education, and achieve primary education for at least 80 percent of all girls and boys, through formal schooling or non-formal education. Adult illiteracy should be cut to at least half the 1990 level, and literacy levels of women brought into line with those of men.
A country's ability to develop more sustainably depends on the capacity of its people and institutions to understand complex environment and development issues so that they can make the right development choices. Governments should use wide public consultation to determine what improvements in capacity their people need to implement their national version of Agenda 21 for sustainable development. This analysis should be done by 1994, if possible, and should be based upon a broad national consensus. By 1996, the United Nations should recommend what additional measures are needed to strengthen international technical co-operation programmes for sustainable development.
A large responsibility for following up on the Rio recommendation rests with the General Assembly of the United Nations, where all member countries have policy making and other responsibilities to fulfil. The United Nations Development Programme, with its global network, will act as the lead agency in mobilizing donor assistance and organizing efforts by the United Nations system to build expertise for sustainable development. The continued active and effective participation of non-governmental organizations, the scientific community and the private sector, as well as of local groups and communities, is important in the implementation of Agenda 21.
International law on sustainable development needs to be developed in ways that observe the delicate balance between the needs for development and for environmental protection. Current international environmental laws should be reviewed and developed to make them more effective. International laws should also promote the integration of environment and development policies. Conflicts between environmental and social or economic agreements should be identified and resolved.
There is already a wealth of information that could be used for the management of sustainable development, but many people have trouble finding the information when they need it. The gap in the availability, quality and accessibility of data between the developed and the developing world has been increasing.
(1) Often referred to as the 'Earth' or 'Rio Summit'.
This Overview of Agenda 21 was prepared by the Bahá'í Community of the United Kingdom as part of its contribution to the sustainable development process.
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