2002 Johannesburg Earth Summit on Sustainable Development

Feature by Scott Fogden || Sep 1, 2002

From August 26th to September 4th, 2002, international attention focused on Johannesburg, as South Africa’s commercial capital played host to high-level diplomatic meetings assigned to alleviate poverty while protecting the earth’s environment. This article provides an introduction to the Summit's issues, events, and outcomes.

Understanding Sustainable Development in the World

Explanation of the concept and how it is used

The Global Balancing Act

Finding balance between economic interests and environmental concerns

History of the Earth Summits

From Rio to Johannesburg

Canada's Role in the 2002 Earth Summit

Domestic interests & global concerns

Highlights of the 2002 Earth Summit

Events & agreements

Links to Further Information

List of links for more on this topic

Understanding Sustainable Development

Explanation of the concept and how it is used

Often heard but seldom considered, ‘sustainable development’ is a phrase that can be interpreted in many ways. In 1987, the UN's definition stated, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development [The Brundtland Report], 1987). This definition touches on the concept's most basic component: specifically, we can’t expend the earth’s limited potential today if we want human life to continue tomorrow.

Of course, the issue is more complicated than that. When delegates met in Johannesburg, they were after concrete measures that would balance our current and future needs. Along with their advisors, the delegates represented a number of perspectives for current and future sustainable development. For instance, developing countries in Asia or Africa might argue that their people need economic development before environmental progress can be made. Meanwhile, many developed countries concentrated on encouraging cleaner energy technologies resulting in reduced pollution that benefited their citizens' health.

But there were other voices at the Summit aside from government officials. Stakeholders included business leaders, scientists, environmentalists, economists, and a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Each stakeholder has a unique take on sustainable development that falls into one or more of the following approaches:

Three Pillars: Approaches to Sustainability

Economic: Encouraging economic development and infrastructure also increases the capacity for change.

This approach asserts that the economically powerful developed world will invest in environmental protection, whereas developing countries must devote their energies elsewhere. Simply put, the poor can’t afford to share the costly interests of a healthy environment; surviving is enough of a task for many.

  • The Group of 77 (G77) developing countries has often supported this approach arguing that only when they ‘catch up’ to the developed world will they be able to participate in initiatives such as environmental protection and pollution reduction.
  • Business leaders are likely to support this approach arguing that increased trade and commerce is the most efficient way to achieve development and thereby a capacity for environmental responsibili
Environment: Concrete prescriptions, rules, and enforcement must curb environmental degradation.

This approach asserts that traditional development methods have created critical problems for the survival of humans and the planet.

  • The European Union has sponsored this approach calling for definitive action such as the targets laid out in the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Environmentalists largely favour this approach since it targets environmental destruction first and foremost.
Social Justice: Sustainable development is about protecting the environment as well as economic and social justice.

This approach asserts that economic capacity and ecological stability play into a larger sphere of interests. Human life requires a combination of these entities but also social stability, security, and equality.

  • Norway, Canada, and Japan have set their agendas based on some form of this combination.
  • NGOs representing women’s or human rights groups favour this approach since it addresses a wider range of issues affecting social development.

The Agenda of the Conference

With such diverse interests in mind, the UN chose to focus attention on a few broad objectives at the Summit:

  1. Alleviating poverty.
  2. Improving the ability of all countries, particularly in the South, to meet globalization's challenges.
  3. Promoting responsible production and consumption.
  4. Ensuring that all people have access to energy sources.
  5. Reducing environmentally related health problems.
  6. Improving access to clean water.

Global Balancing Act

Economic interests and environmental concerns

With such immense objectives and a diverse range of interests, the Summit's risk is that in its attempt to cover everything, it would achieve nothing. In principle, everyone is a proponent of sustainable development. Politically, it is a term that can mobilize popular support through rhetorical use, but it plays out very differently in practice. Perhaps the most sensitive aspects of implementing plans for sustainable development are the associated economic costs.

In Johannesburg, delegates bound by the interests of their constituents blocked initiatives on a wide range of issues. Most notably, summit negotiations were stalled in three prominent areas: agriculture subsidies, energy interests, and poverty concessions.

Europe and Agriculture

Agriculture is widely recognized as a potential area to reduce poverty since trade barriers disproportionately affect farmers in poorer countries. Developed countries place heavy import tariffs on goods produced by developing countries because they want to protect their own farming industries. Europe, in particular (but not exclusively), subsidizes its farming industries in this manner and sought to maintain its right to do so at the Summit.

Energy Concerns: United States, Canada, Australia

With regard to the heavily polluting fossil fuel industries, some countries were similarly hesitant toward the Summit’s proposals. The United States, Canada, and Australia were notably reluctant to support fossil fuel reduction targets, although Canada did announce its plan to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. All three countries have economies particularly dependent on the oil and gas industries and would be markedly affected by such measures.

Emphasis on Poverty: G77

The Group of 77 developing countries insists that they:

  1. Are not responsible for the majority of industrial pollution or CO2 emissions.
  2. Cannot afford major environmental initiatives.

They, therefore, insist that the developed world carry the brunt of the economic burden for summit initiatives and increase the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries. Much of the developing world's exemption from the Kyoto Protocol was one of the main reasons the United States refused to ratify.

History of the Earth Summits

From Rio to Johannesburg

Today’s environmental movement finds its origin in 1960s Europe and North America. It gained momentum throughout the decade, and the first international meeting focusing specifically on the environment and development was held in Stockholm in 1972. This meeting was called The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.

1986 - Brundtland Commission

Following this conference, the United Nations appointed a World Commission on Environment and Development to find critical areas of environmental degradation around the globe. Led by Norway’s Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the commission delivered its findings and proposed solutions. Commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report, but officially titled Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the research brought the concept of sustainable development to the fore and called for cooperative, international efforts to combat growing environmental problems.

1992 - The Rio Earth Summit

The Rio Summit was a response to this call for global environmental cooperation. Officially titled the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio hosted an unprecedented gathering to focus on environmental issues; more than 35,000 people, including 106 heads of state took part in the Summit. Public awareness and debate around environmental issues peaked with a number of new conventions agreed upon, including biodiversity and climate change, to name two. Institutionally, the UN formed the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to monitor implementation of agreements reached in Rio. Crucially, Agenda 21 formed a ‘global plan-of-action’ for sustainable development at local, national, and international levels.

Read the Rio Declaration

What is Agenda 21?

In 1992, the international community adopted Agenda 21 as a non-binding framework incorporating environmental, economic, and social concerns into a single scheme. It contains over 2,500 wide-ranging and concrete recommendations for action on issues such as:

  • Reducing wasteful use of natural resources
  • Fighting poverty
  • Protecting the atmosphere, oceans, and animal and plant life
  • Promoting sustainable agriculture practices that will feed the world's growing population.

Read the Agenda 21 plan

2002 - Johannesburg Summit

The Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development marked a continuation of the earlier efforts of Agenda 21. Often dubbed Rio-Plus-10, it was meant to reaffirm Agenda 21 as well as broaden the sustainable development debate to encourage partnerships between government, business, and civil society.

The Run-up to Johannesburg: Preparations

Most of the negotiations took place at the Summit's preparatory meetings. The tenth session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (known as CSD10) was the global Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the Johannesburg Summit. Four inter-governmental PrepCom meetings were held during 2001-2002 to agree on the agenda for the Summit.

The First Summit Preparatory Committee (PrepCom1) was held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from April 31 to May 2, 2001. The Second Summit Preparatory Committee (PrepCom2) was held from January 28 to February 8, 2002 in New York, followed by the Third Summit Preparatory Committee (PrepCom3), also in New York, from March 25 to April 5, 2002. The final PrepCom (PrepCom4) committee convened at the ministerial level, and was held in Bali, Indonesia, from May 27 to June 7, 2002. Representatives from each of the major groups, including leaders from the NGO and business communities participated in these meetings.

For more details on the Agendas and Preparatory Committees:

Agendas and PrepCom proceedings

Earth Summits: Promoting Multilateralism

Since 1970, a comprehensive series of multilateral agreements on crucial environmental and sustainability issues have been reached. For more details on these agreements:

List of multilateral agreements since 1970

Canada's Role in the 2002 Earth Summit

Global concerns and domestic interests

The Canadian government's focus of its Johannesburg mission was touted “Global Sustainable Development with an Emphasis on Africa." As mentioned in the section Understanding Sustainable Development, Canada’s approach at the time of the Summit was distinguished by its combination of all three central pillars of sustainable development: environmental, economic, and social justice.

Sustainable Development

At the Johannesburg Summit, Canada emphasized partnerships in its sustainable development platform. With a large private sector contingent, the delegation stressed the practicality of partnerships for seeking, “cost-effective solutions to issues such as urban sustainability, capacity building and knowledge sharing on subjects from forest management to sustainable mining.”


President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program was probably Canada’s most valuable role at the Summit. Canada’s Minister of the Environment at the time, David Anderson, carried this title and pushed for consensus on ways to enforce and regulate environmental law. Given the complexity of organizing local, national, and international arrangements for environmental governance, the proceedings were hard fought, but did not move far.

Health and Human Rights

Canada’s emphasis on health care and human rights was another area that distinguished Canada’s platform from that of most other countries. Beyond environmental and economic initiatives, Canada’s delegation highlighted the importance of health care and medical services for social stability and economic development. With Canadian pressure, medical access is now deemed a human right alongside cultural and religious values.

With regard to human rights, the ‘human security’ agenda was forefront for Canada. This agenda placed importance on the capacity of individuals to live without fear of war or violence.


Subsequent announcements by the Canadian government played into summit proceedings. Over the next five years, $6 billion was earmarked to support new and existing investments in Africa’s development, including a $500 million Canada Fund for Africa.

The Fund includes:

  • Elimination of tariffs and quotas on imports from the 48 Least Developed Countries, of which 34 are in Africa;
  • $28 million to develop skills and expertise in the public sector;
  • $9 million to strengthen the parliamentary system;
  • $6 million for local governance;
  • A doubling of Canada's investment in basic education to $100 million by 2005;
  • $50 million towards the development of an HIV vaccine; and
  • $50 million to help eradicate polio.

Domestic Concerns

With pressure from sources within Canada, the delegation played a high profile on a few fronts. Energy was paramount in this regard; pressure from Alberta’s oil and gas industry as well as Ontario and BC governments made Canada’s plan to ratify the Kyoto Protocol uncertain. The delegation maintained its support for the accord’s flexibility mechanisms, such as emissions trading.

For more information on emissions trading and Canada’s overall position, check out:

Mapleleafweb: The Kyoto Protocol

Fisheries were another area of specific interest for Canada as negotiations finalized plans to restore fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015.

Highlights of the 2002 Earth Summit

Events & agreements

A number of media outlets reported lacklustre progress on many of the Summit’s central themes. Despite this, the United Nations highlighted several of the Summit’s achievements. (Note that a variety of outcomes are listed, from invaluable and precise, to speculative and vague.)

Water and Sanitation

  • Commitment to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to sanitation by 2015.
  • The United States announced $970 million in investments over the next three years on water and sanitation projects.
  • The European Union announced the “Water for Life” initiative that seeks to engage partners to meet water and sanitation goals, primarily in Africa and Central Asia. The Asia Development Bank provided a $5 million grant to UN Habitat and $500 million in fast-track credit for the Water for Asian Cities Programme.
  • Twenty-one other water and sanitation initiatives with at least $20 million in extra resources.


  • Commitment to increase access to modern energy services, energy efficiency, and the use of renewable energy.
  • To phase out, where appropriate, energy subsidies.
  • To support the NEPAD objective of ensuring access to energy for at least 35% of Africa’s population within 20 years.
  • The nine major electricity companies of the E7 signed a range of agreements with the UN to facilitate technical cooperation for sustainable energy projects in developing countries.
  • The European Union announced a $700 million partnership initiative on energy and the United States announced that it would invest up to $43 million for the initiative in 2003.
  • The South African energy utility Eskom announced a partnership to extend modern energy services to neighbouring countries.
  • Thirty-two partnership submissions for energy projects with at least $26 million in resources.


  • Commitment that by 2020, chemicals should be used and produced in ways that do not harm human health and the environment.
  • To enhance cooperation to reduce air pollution.
  • To improve developing countries’ access to environmentally sound alternatives to ozone depleting chemicals by 2010.
  • The United States announced their commitment to spend $2.3 billion through 2003 on health, some of which was earmarked earlier for the Global Fund.
  • Sixteen partnership submissions for health projects with $3 million in resources.


  • The GEF will consider the Convention to Combat Desertification as a focal area for funding.
  • Development of food security strategies for Africa by 2005.
  • The United States will invest $90 million in 2003 for sustainable agriculture programs.
  • Seventeen partnership submissions with at least $2 million in additional resources.

Bio Diversity and Ecosystem Management

  • Commitment to reduce biodiversity loss by 2010.
  • Reverse the current trend in natural resource degradation.
  • Restore fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015.
  • Establish a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012.
  • Improve developing countries’ access to environmentally sound alternatives to ozone depleting chemicals by 2010.
  • Undertake initiatives by 2004 to implement the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land Based Sources of Pollution.
  • Thirty-two partnership initiatives with $100 million in resources.
  • The United States has announced $53 million for forests in 2002-2005.

Other Issues

  • Recognition that opening access to markets is a key to development for many countries.
  • Support the phase out of all forms of export subsidies.
  • Commitment to establish a 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production.
  • Commitment to actively promote corporate responsibility and accountability.
  • Commitments to develop and strengthen a range of activities to improve preparedness and response for natural disasters.
  • Agreement to the replenishment of the Global Environment Facility, with a total of $3 billion ($2.92 billion announced pre-Summit and $80 million added by EU in Johannesburg).

What is the Kyoto Protocol's Status

Ministers at the Johannesburg Summit indicated their support for the Kyoto Protocol. The agreed action plan read: "States that have ratified strongly urge those that have not done so to ratify Kyoto in a timely manner.”

Countries like China, India, Brazil, and Thailand announced their ratification of the Kyoto Protocol at the Johannesburg Summit. Russia and Canada gave strong signals that they would ratify in the near future. The combined emissions of Russia and Canada would be sufficient to allow greenhouse gas figures to reach the required limit.

The Kyoto Protocol will enter into force 90 days after 55 governments have ratified, including developed countries which represent approximately 55% of 1990 carbon dioxide emissions (for ratifying states). As of September 2002, 94 countries had ratified, including all European Union member states and Japan, accounting for 37.1%.

Shares of 1990 CO2 emissions:
United States 36.1 %
European Union 24.2 %
Russian Federation 17.4 %
Japan 8.5 %
Canada 3.3 %
Australia 2.1 %

Recent weather-related crises throughout the world remind us of the changes that climate change is likely to bring. From droughts in India and North America to flooding throughout Europe, regional climate change scenarios are thought to be occurring.

Plan of Action

The Johannesburg Summit agreed upon a Plan of Implementation that underlines the importance of developing and disseminating innovative technologies in energy and other key sectors, including the private sector. Technology transfers to developing countries are highlighted in this plan.

Plan of Implementation [PDF]

Political Declaration

Participating governments negotiated the Plan of Action and a Political Declaration at the Summit.

Political Declaration [DOC]

Partnerships for Sustainable Development

  • Type I Outcomes: Political commitments made at the Summit.
  • Type II Outcomes: Partnerships consisting of a series of commitments and planned coalitions to further the implementation of sustainable development. Not negotiated, they are voluntary arrangements made by multiple stakeholders including the private sector and NGOs.

List of links for more on this topic
The debate about the worth of the Summit
Canadian Government Sites
United Nations Sites
Further Study
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