CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Halpern, S. 1992. United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: Process and documentation. Providence, RI: Academic Council for the United Nations System (ACUNS).

Chapter One

Preparations for the UNCED

PrepCom I


As the name implies, the initial meeting was the organizational meeting which laid out the structure of the PrepCom process. Tommy Koh of Singapore was elected Chair; tasks were divided between three working groups (WGs) and a plenary session as follows:

Working Group I

Working Group II

Working Group III (not yet established)



This first substantive meeting indicated the primary areas of concern and requested that the UN secretariat prepare a number of studies and reports; a common practice during the subsequent PrepComs. In terms of substantive work the output was meager, but because the delegates agreed on what it was that they were discussing, this meeting was important because it identified the "ideas" for the conference's ultimate output: Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter.

Secretary-General Maurice Strong set forth his personal agenda for the conference, suggesting an "Earth Charter" which would include the basic principles to guide people and nations in their conduct towards each other and to ensure the future integrity and sustainability of the Earth. He also discussed, in general terms, the overall UNCED agenda for action to meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century. In his view, this document was to be one of the most important products of the conference and that it would be the only way to have a coherent and manageable framework for dealing with the vast array of challenges, among which there were obvious trade-offs. He emphasized that this "Agenda 21" would only be meaningful if accompanied by an agreement revealing how to accomplish it or an action plan. Therefore, cross-sectoral issues including financial resources, technology transfers, and institutions must have special importance.

The principle focus of the conference was organized around six major agenda items:

(1) conventions (e.g., to provide the actual forum for them to be signed, if prior agreements have been reached); (2) Earth Charter; (3) Agenda 21; (4) financial resources; (5) technology transfers; and (6) institutions.

PrepCom II

This session continued to develop areas of concern that had emerged from PrepCom I and began to identify, in practical terms, the measures needed to accomplish them. In order to facilitate this process, it was decided to establish Working Group III, concerned with issues such as legal mechanisms.

Much of the time spent in plenary focused on the cross-sectoral issues of financial resources and technology transfers. As the Rapporteur, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria, said, "For industrialized countries, the issue is finding ways and means of adding environmental consideration to their developed economies. But in many developing countries, development is completely missing, so how are we supposed to incorporate environment into something that does not exist?" The United States, Great Britain, and France indicated that additional assistance for a general environmental program was unlikely, although England supported the establishment of a funding mechanism to aid developing countries with environmental problems, and suggested the (at that time still) proposed the Global Environmental Facility (GEF).6 The G-77 demanded a mandatory funding scheme. With regard to transfers of technology, the G-77 supported concessional and preferential terms, but the U.S. argued that intellectual property rights, owned by private companies, would limit such transfers, and furthermore, the same topic was being discussed at the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Little progress was made at PrepCom II regarding the content of Agenda 21, whose basic structure is: (1) basis for action; (2) action agenda; and (3) instruments for action. The North also raised the issue of population control, but the South would not agree that population increases spelled greater environmental degradation. The South instead argued that particular approaches to development may be more harmful than simple statistics. Population issues came to be referred to a "demographic dynamics and policies."

PrepCom III

This session did not, as had prior PrepComs, begin with a plenary meeting in which all governments participated. It immediately broke up into working groups, each of which was further subdivided into formal meetings, at which States made official statements and NGOs were also present. There were also informal meetings (called "formal-informals"), similar to negotiations but for which the proceedings were translated but not transcribed;7 and finally informal-informals, conducted in English, the format of which ranged from open-ended negotiations to small meetings in the Chair's office, typically without NGO participation. In response to complaints regarding these procedures, PrepCom IV was scheduled to start with a plenary session to provide sufficient time for the consideration of crucial, cross-sectoral issues such as technology transfers and financial resources. Countries with small delegations were also concerned that if several meetings occurred at the same time, they could not adequately cover them in full. NGOs did not approve of the informal-informals, as they were usually excluded.

Working Group I

There was concern that the atmosphere discussions focused exclusively on energy, and needed also to consider transportation, industry, forest, and oceans. The conservation of energy discussions included a possible energy tax; the U.S. opposed such an approval, arguing that the discussions focused too much on energy consumption and that the proposals were too interventionist and a potential violation of national sovereignty. Others argued that PrepCom should not consider climate change at all since the INC/FCCC would. Regarding forests, all agreed that a forest convention would be impossible for the UNCED, so focus switched to a non-binding authoritative statement of principles for global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests. Finally, the African countries were concerned that not enough attention was being paid to desertification

Working Group II

Very little progress was made. It was overwhelmed by the issue of "oceans."

Working Group III

The title "Earth Charter" was considered too environmental. There was a proposal to call it the "Rio de Janeiro Declaration," for which delegations submitted proposals; they also wanted to compile draft texts. Some inter-sessional consultation would be necessary before PrepCom IV.


Again there was friction between the G-77 and the developed countries. Great concern that the sectoral issues would require much discussion at PrepCom IV.

PrepCom IV

In this last and massive five week session, which occasionally comprised twenty-four hour days, drafts from PrepComs I, II, and III were modified and final language for the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 were also hammered out. Most of the work was completed during the last days this session which finally closed at 5:10 am, April 4. The Rio Declaration, for example, was not agreed to until 3:30 am the 4th, and even so that was only after Koh had ordered the delegations (on April 1) to chose a new panel of negotiators and compile a new working draft. North/South splits made consensus on the declaration arduous. At the end of the fourth week the only principle approved was No. 31, which related to women's role in environmental management and protection. At the beginning of the final week, opponents finally found that they could agree that each state had an inalienable right to develop provided it took the needs of present and future generations into account. The G-77 said this opened the way to their acceptance of the: "precautionary approach" (lack of scientific certainty will not prevent cost-effective actions to halt serious environmental damage); the "polluter-pays" principle; and the principle affirming the need for environmental impact assessments before development Rio Principles 15, 16, and 17, respectively. Rio Principle 2 also updated Stockholm Principle 21. The text of the Rio Declaration was thus sent to the conference "clean," free from the square brackets that are traditionally used in UN gatherings to signal disagreement. However, even after agreement, there were veiled threats to reopen some passages in Rio.

Eighty-five percent of Agenda 21 was agreed to at PrepCom IV, except for the chapter on "Atmosphere," which was sent to Rio completely bracketed, and the issues on financing, leading Koh to say, "The UN should also avoid doing things like this when there is a major recession in the world."9 The estimated cost to implement Agenda 21 in developing countries was roughly U.S. $600 billion per year, of which about U.S. $125 billion annually would come from industrialized countries. OECD concessionary funding before UNCED accounted for about U.S. $60 billion and the G-77 demanded that industrialized countries agree to respect the target assigned several decades before, namely to commit 0.7% of their GNP to make up the shortfall. This goal was accepted neither at the PrepCom IV, nor at Rio, and mechanisms to make up this deficit were never established.

Other items that went to Rio bracketed, but which were worked out are discussed below in the section entitled "Work on Agenda 21 at UNCED."

Preparatory Work By Other Groups

During the preparatory process, all five of the UN regional economic commissions also held meetings to plan for sustainable development in their regions and provide relevant information to the PrepCom. Other meetings that provided information to the PrepCom included: the International Conference on an Agenda for Science and Development (organized by NGOs in cooperation with UNCED); Women and Children First (organized by UNCED secretariat); a Consultative Meeting between UNDP and NGOs; the International Conference on Agriculture and the Environment (organized by FAO and Government of the Netherlands); the Second World Industry Conference on Environmental Management (convened by the International Chamber of Commerce); The Global Assembly on Women and the Environment; the International Conference on Water and the Environment (organized by WMO); and Sustainable Development: From Concept to Action (organized by UNCED Secretariat with UNDP, and hosted by the Netherlands).

Two particularly important meetings were held after PrepCom IV: The Second Ministerial Conference on Development Countries on Environment and Development, held from April 26 - 29, 1992 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the Eminent Persons Meeting on Financing Global Environmental Policy and Law, held from April 15 - 17, 1992 in Tokyo, Japan.

Work on Agenda 21 at UNCED

The eight-hundred-plus page action plan for sustainable development signed at UNCED covered one hundred and fifteen topics, fifteen of which were negotiated in eight informal contact groups at UNCED itself. Agenda 21's final chapters, noting significant changes negotiated by the informal contact groups, are:


Chapter 1: Removed reference to "People under occupation," but retained it 	in the Rio Declaration

Section 1: Social and Economic Dimensions

Chapter 2:  Accelerating Sustainable Development in Developing Countries
Chapter 3:  Combating Poverty
Chapter 4:  Challenging Consumption Patterns
Chapter 5:  Demographic Dynamics
Chapter 6:  Human Health
Chapter 7:  Sustainable Human Settlements
Chapter 8:  Integrating Environmental and Development in Decision-Making

Section 2: Conservation and Management of Resources for Development

Chapter 9:  Atmosphere
Most controversial was Saudi Arabia's desire that the section on protecting the atmosphere not address renewable energy resources as environmentally sound energy resources; this section was completely rewritten and was the last adopted chapter.
Chapter 10: Integrated Planning and Management of Land Resources
Chapter 11: Combating Deforestation 
Due to North/South conflict over need for treaty, this chapter neither promotes nor denies the need for treaty organizations.
Chapter 12: Combating Desertification and Drought
Will request establishment by the General Assembly of an intergovernmental negotiating committee for elaboration of an international convention.
Chapter 13: Sustainable Mountain Development
Chapter 14: Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development
Chapter 15: Conservation of Biological Diversity
Negotiations concerning issues already resolved by treaty.
Chapter 16: Environmentally Sound Management of Biotechnology
Chapter 17: Oceans and Their Living Resources
Exploitation of straddling and migratory fish stocks not resolved.  To be addressed in separate UN conference.
Chapter 18: Freshwater Resources
Chapter 19: Toxic Chemicals
Chapter 20: Hazardous Wastes
Agreed that governments should make militaries comply with a nation's norms.
Chapter 21: Solid Wastes and Sewage
Chapter 22: Radioactive Wastes

Section 3: Strengthening the Role of Major Groups

Chapter 24: Women
Chapter 25: Children & Youths
Chapter 26: Indigenous Peoples
Chapter 27: NGOs
Chapter 28: Local Authorities
Chapter 29: Trade Unions
Chapter 30: Business & Industry
Chapter 31: Science & Technology
Chapter 32: Farmers
Section 4: Means of Implementation Chapter 33: Financial Resources and Mechanisms As throughout the entire process these were the most difficult negotiations. The three major issues were:

(1) Target and deadlines for increase in official development assistance. Industrialized nations agreed to "reaffirm" their commitment to the UN target of 0.7% of GNP, but no deadlines were set, nor any new obligations imposed on those countries, such as the U.S., that had expressed reservations to this target in the first place;

(2) Replenishment of the International Development Agency of the World Bank. No agreement;

(3) Governance of the GEF.

Additional funding for an explicit "Earth increment" was not instituted, but it was recommended that GEF be restructured to give developing countries more power. Chapter 34: Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology Discussion of appropriate terms for transfer were finessed through use of terms such as "Promoted, facilitated, and financed as appropriate." Chapter 35: Science for Sustainable Development Chapter 36: Education, Public Awareness, and Training Chapter 37: Cooperation for Capacity Building in Developing Countries Chapter 38: International Institutional Arrangements The major concern was which body should monitor and review the implementation of Agenda 21: one answerable directly to the General Assembly or a "subsidiary mechanism" under the Economic and Social Council, such as the UNEP. It was agreed to establish a new Commission for Sustainable Development that will report to the Economic and Social Council, and also that NGOs should have an as yet undetermined role in the Commission. Chapter 39: International Legal Instruments and Mechanisms Controversy arose over the issue of "environmental crimes" ultimately resolved by restricting the use of this provision to times of war. Controversy also existed about trade barriers, which was finessed by stating that environmental policies should not restrict trade; but if they do, measures should be nondiscriminatory, transparent, restrict trade as little as possible, and consider special needs of developing countries. Chapter 40: Information for Decision-Making

Preparatory Work for the Climate Change Convention

The initial work on climate change began in the late eighties when the world was experiencing what many experts called the hottest years on record. The first significant international workshop was held in the cities of Villach and Bellagio, Italy in the fall of 1987, where the issue was raised and discussed. In June of 1988, forty-eight countries met in Tokyo and recommended a series of steps to protect the atmosphere, including a recommended twenty percent reduction of 1988 CO2 emissions levels by industrialized countries by year 2005. This was followed by a Conference in Toronto in June of 1988 and a meeting of experts in Ottawa in February of 1989, where possible elements for a broad convention to protect the atmosphere and a narrower one on climate change (including a statement of general principle) were developed.

Parallel to these meetings were meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC), established in November of 1988 by the UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to assess the scientific information on, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of, and the potential responses to, climate change. It consisted of over one thousand atmospheric experts from 46 countries and brought many new countries into the discussion. The IPCC published its first assessment report in August of 1990 calling for international negotiations on a framework convention to begin as soon as possible. This recommendation was reiterated at the Second World Climate Change Conference several months later. After the report, UNEP and WMO convened an ad hoc working group to prepare for the expected negotiations. The group could not, however, agree whether to continue forward with a negotiating committee basically within the existing IPCC process (where many developing nations had felt under represented) or to work with a special conference under the authority of the General Assembly.

General Assembly resolution 45/212 settled the question by establishing a new Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC/FCCC) as the single negotiating process under the auspices of the General Assembly. Its mandate was to negotiate a framework convention with "appropriate time commitments" in time for signing at UNCED. It would incorporate and use earlier work as appropriate. The first INC/FCCC meeting in June 1991 devoted most of its time arguing about which working groups to establish. It finally established two working groups: Working Group I - Commitments (to limit and reduce the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs); protect and enhance sinks and reservoirs; provide adequate financial resources to enable developing countries to meet incremental costs; facilitate the transfer of technology on a fair and equitable basis; and address the special needs of developing countries); and Working Group II - Institutional and Legal Mechanisms.

The INC continued to meet every several months but by the end December 1991 had made little substantive progress. In contrast to the PrepCom process, where differences split fairly clearly North or South, here there were more subdivisions. In the North the split was primarily between the United States and the rest of the Western world, with the European Community (EC) often establishing the non-U.S. developed country position. In the South there was a spectrum, with the oil producing states at one extreme, the small island states at the other (35 of which had formed the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), during the Second Climate Change Convention). The rest of the developing world was in between, seeing the negotiations more in terms of potential curbs on their right to develop since GHGs are a traditional by-product of industrialization and improved standards of living.

All the delegations provisionally agreed that the objective of the conference was to stabilize GHGs (from the Ministerial Declaration) and that such stabilization should be in time for ecosystems to adapt (from the 1989 Noordwijk Declaration). All also agreed to accept at least qualitative obligations, provided that the developed countries agree to accept more stringent, quantitative commitments. Finally, there seemed to be near universal agreement that some obligations should not apply to all states and that some states should receive more lenient treatment, although the exact basis for differentiation was unclear: Should it be based on a simple breakdown along North/South lines or should it be a more complex notion based on vulnerability to change and the like. The treatment of "economies in transition," such as Eastern Europe, also posed difficulties The two points that the developing world agreed upon were the same as the G-77's initial demand before entering the PrepCom: financial assistance and technology transfers.

The area of disagreement between all delegations was vast. At the close of the December session no decision had been made on the most basic question: Should the convention be modeled after the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, (i.e., a broad convention with few specifics), or should it contain specific commitments, (i.e., timetables and targets for emissions stabilization/reduction and implementation mechanisms). Although the Toronto Conference and the first IPCC report both called for specific reductions, no delegation seriously pushed for CO2 reductions at INC. Even those states which had themselves committed to reductions seemed to agree that reduction targets must await a later protocol, and focused on stabilization targets for CO2. The EC's proposal to stabilize at 1990 levels by the year 2000 was widely supported, with the U.S. standing virtually alone in public opposition. It was also unclear to whether to focus only on CO2s or to deal comprehensively with all GHGs; a sub-question of that was whether to include substances already regulated under other treaties, (i.e., chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]). However, when new scientific data indicated that since CFCs also destroy stratospheric ozone (another GHG) reducing CFCs might increase ozone and therefore the net role of CFCs could not be ascertained. The U.S., Canada, and Brazil also wanted to calculate net emissions. Opponents argued that while intellectually sound this approach was impossible due to uncertainty about evaluating mechanisms to subtract from pollution sources (e.g., the intake of CO2 from the rain forests to offset industrial emissions).

Regarding specific timetable and target commitments, Japan early on proposed a "pledge and review" idea (quickly renamed "hedge-and-delay" by the NGOs) under which states would unilaterally pledge specific actions, and then an international body would review performance. The hope was that this would produce a momentum towards stricter commitments and that the international review process would promote transparency. This novel concept was extensively discussed at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, and then again in INC3, but was ultimately adopted by the proponents of targets and timetables who said "pledge and review" should be in addition to, rather than in place of, commitments. Other proposals in the timetable and target area included: tradable emission permits (a concept recently enacted in the 1990 U.S. Clean Air Act) and joint implementation, or bubbling between several regions or states.

The other area of disagreement concerned financial resources and technology transfers. Specific commitments in these areas could serve two separate functions: (1) pay for incremental costs of measures to prevent climate change, i.e., to limit emissions of GHGs or to maintain and enhance sinks; and (2) pay for adverse costs of climate change should it occur. Here the split in the South became apparent, with China, India, and Brazil being most interested in the former and AOSIS in the latter. AOSIS, recognizing that since it emits little GHGs and thus, unlike the large developing countries, had little to offer, proposed an insurance fund to provide compensation should warming occur. Regardless of the split in the South, the North had not yet agreed to provide anything. The EC acknowledged the need to provide new and additional resources, but specified no amount. The U.S. was not even prepared to go that far, stating that the international community should first look at existing multilateral and bilateral funding sources. Some developing countries decided to follow a wait-and-see approach until the developed countries resolved the issue. Two other issues remained unresolved. Should the convention include a section on "general principles"? Should it create a new financial mechanism or use the recently created GEF?

Agreement was finally reached during the second part of the INC's Fifth Session on 9 May 1992. The convention will cover all GHGs and require no specific timetable for stabilization beyond "a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally..." The document lays out general principles and notes that the largest historic share of the GHG emissions comes from developed countries, which should thus take the lead in combating climate change. The primary commitment is a variation on Japan's pledge-and-review idea; all parties would provide national inventories on sources and sinks of GHGs not covered by the Montreal Protocol, and national reports on policies and measures that limit such emissions and enhance such sinks. A more specific commitment to adopt and implement policies to limit anthropomorphic emissions of GHGs and to protect and enhance sinks and reservoirs, applies only to developed or Annex I countries (including certain countries of the former Soviet bloc "undergoing the process of transition to a market economy"). These specific measures were supposed to demonstrate that the developed countries were taking the lead.

Regarding financial and technology transfer commitments, Annex II lists a category of countries that, along with the developed countries, shall provide new and additional funding for developing countries to meet incremental costs and to assist those which are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The GEF is to be the interim mechanism to handle this until the new mechanism is worked out at the First Meeting of the Parties. The convention established a subsidiary body for technological advice, which as decided at Rio, included the IPCC. The INC will continue to meet until the First Conference of the Parties, and the convention shall enter into force after ratification by fifty states.

Preparatory Work for the Biodiversity Convention

The negotiations for the biodiversity convention had their origins in a 1987 UNEP decision which established separate ad hoc working groups of experts on biodiversity and biotechnology, later merged (over U.S. objection) and renamed the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Biological Diversity. It should also be noted that species loss and the destruction of the rain forest were already in the public eye, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and National Resources (IUCN) had been working on a biodiversity convention. The IUCN, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) played important roles in drafting the treaty.

The ad hoc working group of experts, and then the INC, met every several months. It broke up into two working groups. Initial matters to be resolved were: (1) whether there was agreement on the fundamental principle that conservation of biological diversity is a common concern to all people; (2) financial mechanisms (cost of an international biodiversity plan was initially estimated at U.S. $50 billion); (3) the interlocking issues of availability and access to biological diversity and relevant technologies; and (4) the need for participation of developing countries. Substantive progress proved slow.

By the sixth, and what was to have been the last, INC session, there were still major disagreements on most of the key issues. The familiar financial assistance and technology transfer issues had a new twist, since biotechnology research and patents on gene stocks involve intellectual property rights which are owned, the U.S. and others argued, by private companies and controlled by other international regimes, most notably the GATT. There was also disagreement as to whether to have global listings of key species and biological regions. The U.S., Canada, India, and Brazil opposed Japan, Australia, France, and several African countries. Japan and the U.S. also believed that regulation of biotechnology would stifle innovation. The parties finally agreed that: a state has the sovereign right to exploit its own resources; the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with national governments; and the benefits of research and development derived from biological resources taken from a developing country were expected to be made available to that country. The issues on global listings and finances were not resolved and the delegations agreed to meet one last time before UNCED.

Agreement was finally reached at the last, originally unscheduled session on May 21, 1992. The U.S. announced that it would not sign, but unlike the climate change negotiations, U.S. participation was not crucial; the agreed upon text was sent to UNCED for signature. The convention's goals are the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and the fair sharing of products made from gene stocks. To accomplish these goals, parties are to develop plans and national strategies to: conserve biological diversity, including in situ and ex situ conservation measures, and environmental impact assessments of projects for adverse impacts on biodiversity; to ensure commercial access to biological resources and to share fairly those revenues among source countries and developers; and to establish safety regulations & accept liability for risk relating to biotechnology. The developed/developing country distinction is only significant regarding financial assistance, now set at U.S. $200 million. The GEF is to be an interim financial mechanism "provided it is fully restructured in accordance with...Article 21" until the new institutional structure is worked out at the first meeting of the parties. The convention will enter into force after ratification by thirty states.

Statement of Principles on Forests

This statement had its origins in a convention initiative proposed by President Bush in the July 1990 Economic Summit Meeting of the G-7 (the seven major industrialized nations). Due to many conflicts, plans for a convention were abandoned early on and attention focused on a non-binding statement of principles. This document, agreed at the UNCED on June 13, represents the first global consensus on forests and may lead to a future, legally binding convention.