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october11 1a


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In less than a year world leaders will gather once again, after 20 years to tackle issues on sustainable development. Top of their agenda is a green economy in the context of sustainable development and eradication of poverty and institutional framework for sustainable development.

Our generation is soon to experience one of the most “prestigious” (in my opinion!) conferences. The first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. 20 years on another conference takes place in Brazil - hence Rio+20, a very special conference indeed. What makes Rio+20 exciting is that it will examine the progress since 1992. This article takes you on a short trip down memory lane; drawing on the differences surrounding the two conferences, noting the changes that have taken place since and the atmosphere which will dominate the Rio+20.

...RIO 1992

The UNCED summit adopted 27 principles that were to guide nations in achieving equitable global partnerships, cooperation amongst states and in protecting the global environmental and developmental system³. Central to the adoption of the 27 principles was the concept of sustainable development involving the integration of environmental thinking into every aspect of social, political, and economic activity¹. The topics of interest back then were concerns over the deterioration of the ozone layer, climate change and reducing the loss of biodiversity - these topics have since taken the centre stage over the last two decades².

The two themes adopted for the Rio+20 next year are: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty reduction; and the institutional framework for sustainable development. The UNEP defined green economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Differences between themes of Rio+20 and the 1992 conference reflect a change in our societies - our values and the most prevalent problems. Poverty is a major concern for most developing countries, and is further increased by civil wars and natural disasters that tend to strip nations of resources and livelihoods. In 1992 there was much more emphasis on nature, whereas the Rio+20 conference involves more of the human element- how the environment can be sustainably used to solve the world’s problem of poverty. In May, 2010 South Africa held a Green Economy summit concentrating on green job creation. It emphasized that a global transition to a low-carbon and sustainable economy can create large numbers of green jobs across many sectors of the economy. Key to eradicating poverty, it is widely hoped that Rio+20 will pave the way for an institutional framework that needs to be in place to support such initiatives. After the conference, there might be more expectations for government to create a more conducive environment for green economy initiatives that will help eradicate with poverty.


The next aspect of interest that will be explored is the participants of the conference. In 1992, there was only one powerhouse- the west; which played a major role in influencing the direction of the conference. An article by André Corréa do Lago, the senior organizer in Brazil stated: “the west dominated the world economy and political agenda.” Over the last twenty years, however, economies round the world have taken an unprecedented turn and now countries like South Africa, Brazil, China and India have become more influential in the international arena.


If we take for example South Africa, back in 1992 it was still faced with establishing a new democratic government to be too concerned with the environment. South Africa’s economy has grown In the last 20 years, and have even become members of the G20. These increasingly influential economies (South Africa, China, Brazil and India) have big issues of poverty to deal with in their countries, and it will be interesting to see how they influence the agenda to their favour. Aside from the new key players in the field and the direction they will take, there is another aspect. Watts wrote that while a gap has opened up as the former (the US) group loses influence, the latter (South Africa, China e.t.c.) are reluctant to accept more responsibility. We have seen many of these countries taking the back seat when it comes to engaging in and taking a stand on world issues, like the recent Libya situation where many felt that South Africa could have stepped up to the table much sooner. It seems as if more is expected from them, and it is yet to be seen how they will handle this expectation at the conference.

There is a lot that could be discussed with regards to Rio+20 and many angles to explore. But one fact remains for me: Rio+20 is going to be very interesting to follow. This conference is going to shape the next decades of the world and it has the potential to address the big problem of poverty (and if we are ambitious enough- to eradicate it) and preserve the environment in the process. It remains to be seen how the Rio+20 will run, who will be dominating the agenda and how- especially in light of the recent economic recession. - Motlhakeng Lethapa


  1. Elkington, J. 1994. Towards the Sustainable Corporation: Win-Win-Win Business Strategies for Sustainable Development.
  2. Watts, J. September 2011. Rio+20 must ‘unenvironmentalise’ green issues, says G77 negotiator. The Guardian UK Edition.
  3. Report of the UN conference on Environment and Development, 1992