"The spirit of Rio risks being lost"

For Roch, Rio 1992 was a "big adventure, an important first step" Keystone

In 1992, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a sense of a new beginning could be felt around the world, including in Rio at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

This content was published on June 11, 2012 minutes
Rita Emch in New York,

At the time this was the largest political conference ever. Twenty years later, international heads of state are returning to the Brazilian city to renew political commitment for sustainable development.

In the run-up to the Rio+20 conference, being held from June 20-22, looked back at 1992 with Philippe Roch, the former head of the Federal Environment Office.

The outcomes of that conference include the UN conventions on climate and diversity as well as the Rio Declaration, a document in which sustainable development was anchored as a guiding concept of the international  community.

There was also Agenda 21, a programme for the 21st century, which reflected to a certain extent the mood at the time of renewal.

It presented concrete solutions to issues such as the earth’s imminent ecological collapse which could be prevented with the help of sustainable development. The implementation of the agenda was to follow at a global, regional, national and local level.

Sustainable development

“It was the first time not only that sustainable development was being discussed at such a high level, but also that many people became aware that politicians, businesspeople, environmentalists and those connected to development would have to work together, join forces, if we wanted to preserve our planet’s resources,” said Roch, who in 1992 had just become head of the Environment Office.

The term “sustainable development” entered the global debate on development and environmental policies in 1987 in the UN report of the Brundtland Commission titled Our Common Future.

Under sustainable development, the commission understood a development in which ecology and economy were not diametrically opposed but instead were brought together.

“Big adventure”

“It was a big adventure, an important first step. For the first time at such a high political level issues were being integrated that until then had been tackled separately,” Roch said.

“Ways had to be found to preserve our planet’s ecosystems and resources, because otherwise there couldn’t be fair and social development for everybody in the long-term.”

Roch believes that 20 years after Rio, Agenda 21 remains the best document concerning these fundamental issues.

“The right questions were asked in the Agenda,” he said, adding that there really was a palpable “sense of vigour” at the time – “even if not all states, institutions and organisations approached the goals with the same commitment”.


He said that from a legal and institutional point of view, progress had been made.

However, it was also true, he said, that the anticipated paradigm shift had yet to materialise.

“Living conditions are getting worse in many parts of the world. Way more than a billion people don’t have clean drinking water.”

Roch said that in Rio sustainable development was urgently put on the agenda and there was a fundamental perception that humans had to change their way of life and many of their activities.

“Unfortunately not much of that [spirit] can still be felt. You often get a feeling of hypocrisy: a gap often appears between the lip service and reality.”

Spirit of Rio

Looking back, Roch said in Rio they were more advanced.

“Since then we’ve been going round in circles to a certain extent – in many areas the situation has got worse.”

Regarding the climate, he says the convention was “actually excellent” but that it now has to be admitted that the targets of the Kyoto Protocol won’t be reached.

“Of course there’s been some progress, but by and large we’re not moving forwards because we don’t question the idea that a constantly growing GDP is the only economic criterion,” he said.

“As long as this narrowly materialistic view of things dominates the discourse, I tend to have a rather negative outlook. The spirit of Rio threatens to be lost.”

Slow process

Roch said Switzerland’s record at implementing the Rio goals was so-so. He regretted that progress on energy and the climate was happening very slowly.

“Apart from the CO2 law, when it comes to fossil fuels hardly anything has been undertaken. And unfortunately it needed the Fukushima catastrophe to get the phasing out of nuclear energy on the programme.”

Turning to biodiversity, Roch welcomed the acceptance at the ballot box in 1987 of the Rothenthurm Initiative, which aimed to protect Switzerland’s wetlands (see related story). The new regional nature parks system was also a positive development, he said.

As for spatial planning, Roch pointed to enormous economic and demographic pressure.

“We’re destroying far too many of our last green spaces,” he said, adding that the public obviously agreed, judging by the recent acceptance of the second homes initiative (see related story).

He said there was also work to be done concerning agriculture, where, along with the primary aim of production, the focus was on the protection of soil and water.

“Swiss agriculture hasn’t been ecological enough for a long time,” he said. “There’s still a lot to do and unfortunately the farmers’ association continues to engage in opposition too often.”

Sustainable development

In 1972, the book “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome marked a turning point in awareness of the importance of ecologically sustainable development.

In 1987, the United Nations Commission on Environment and Public Development released the so-called “Brundtland Report”, named after its then president the Norwegian Gro Harlem Brundtland, titled “Our Common Future”.

The commission defined sustainable development as “a development which responds to present needs without compromising the capacity of future generations to respond to theirs”. The report considered that economic, social and environmental problems were linked. It attributed global environment problems principally to poverty in southern countries and to the model of production and consumption in northern countries.

The Brundtland Report became the reference text for the universally accepted concept of sustainability and still influences political debate about sustainable development.

Today, we speak more and more of the “green economy”. This concept has been one of the most contested subjects during the difficult negotiations leading up to the Rio+20 summit.

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Outcomes of Rio 92

The summit, which brought together almost 10,000 delegates, was the launching ground for the two conventions on climate and biodiversity which were later developed by the international community (for example, the Kyoto Protocol).

It also produced the Rio Declaration: 27 principles which established that the economy can only develop over the long term in a sustainable manner, that is, in line with the protection of the environment.

Rio also marked the birth of Agenda 21, an action programme for the 21st century which listed concrete actions to take to avoid, through sustainable development, the ecological catastrophe which threatened the earth.

Delegates also agreed to a non-binding declaration on the exploitation, management and sustainable developments of forests and the idea of a convention against desertification which was created two years later.

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