History of Sustainable Development in the United Nations


In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm brought the industrialized and developing nations together to delineate the ‘rights’ of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. A series of such meetings followed, e.g. on the rights of people to adequate food, to sound housing, to safe water, to access to means of family planning. The recognition to revitalize humanity’s connection with Nature, led to the creation of global institutions within the UN system.


In 1980, the International Union for the Conservation of Natural Resources (IUCN) published the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) which provided a precursor to the concept of sustainable development. The Strategy asserted that conservation of nature cannot be achieved without development to alleviate poverty and misery of hundreds of million of people and stressed the interdependence of conservation and development in which development depends on caring for the Earth. Unless the fertility and productivity of the planet are safeguarded, the human future is at risk.


Ten years later, at the 48th plenary of the General Assembly in 1982, the WCS initiative culminated with the approval of the World Charter for Nature. The Charter stated that “mankind is a part of nature and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems”.


In 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was created and, by 1984, it was constituted as an independent body by the United Nations General Assembly. WCED was asked to formulate ‘A global agenda for change’. In 1987, in its report Our Common Future, the WCED advanced the understanding of global interdependence and the relationship between economics and the environment previously introduced by the WCS. The report wove together social, economic, cultural and environmental issues and global solutions. It reaffirmed that “the environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and therefore it should not be considered in isolation from human concerns. The environment is where we all live; and development is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”


In June 1992, the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro and adopted an agenda for environment and development in the 21st Century. Agenda 21: A Programme of Action for Sustainable Development contains the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which recognizes each nation’s right to pursue social and economic progress and assigned to States the responsibility of adopting a model of sustainable development; and, the Statement of Forest Principles. Agreements were also reached on the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. UNCED for the first time mobilized the Major Groups and legitimized their participation in the sustainable development process. This participation has remained a constant until today. For the first time also, the lifestyle of the current civilization was addressed in Principle 8 of the Rio Declaration. The urgency of a deep change in consumption and production patterns was expressly and broadly acknowledged by State leaders. Agenda 21 further reaffirmed that sustainable development was delimited by the integration of the economic, social and environmental pillars. The spirit of the conference was captured by the expression “Harmony with Nature”, brought into the fore with the first principle of the Rio Declaration: “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”.


In 1993, UNCED instituted the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to follow-up on the implementation of Agenda 21.


In June 1997, the General Assembly dedicated its 19th Special Session (UNGASS-19) to design a “Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21”.


In 2002, ten years after the Rio Declaration, a follow-up conference, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was convened in Johannesburg to renew the global commitment to sustainable development. The conference agreed on the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) and further tasked the CSD to follow-up on the implementation of sustainable development.


On 24th December 2009 the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution (A/RES/64/236) agreeing to hold the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in 2012 – also referred to as ‘Rio+20’ or ‘Rio 20’. The Conference seeks three objectives: securing renewed political commitment to sustainable development, assessing the progress and implementation gaps in meeting already agreed commitments, and addressing new and emerging challenges. The Member States have agreed on the following two themes for the Conference: green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and institutional framework for sustainable development Since UNCED, sustainable development has become part of the international lexicon. The concept has been incorporated in many UN declarations and its implementation, while complex has been at the forefront of world’s institutions and organizations working in the economic, social and environmental sectors.