The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development was adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). It was organized by the United Nations (UN) in Johannesburg in August 26 to September 6 of 2002. It is also called Earth Summit 2002.

It was held 10 years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which focused world governments on environmental issues for the first time.

Earth Summit 2002 produced the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, an international agreement on the environment and sustainable development. The Johannesburg Declaration reiterates most of the proposals from the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21, international agreements from Earth Summit 1992 it had a broader agenda than the Rio Summit in 1992.

The summit in Johannesburg also included a huge number of delegates representing nations, business interests and non-profit environmental and development/citizen/social justice groups. It was the largest UN conference to date, when over 100 heads of state and 40,000 delegated participated and came forward to set up the goals to halt poverty around the world whilst saving the environment at the same time. It covered everything from measures to cut poverty, improve sanitation, improve ecosystems, reduce pollution, and improve energy supply for poor people.



Sustainable development means development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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.

The main focus of world summit was Sustainable development. The record on moving towards sustainability so far appears to have been quite poor and the vast majority of humanity still lack access to basics such as clean water, adequate sanitation, electricity and so on. And this is in the backdrop of an increasing amount of wealth in fewer hands.

In the summit, various key issues were addressed, including Poverty, Water quality and availability, Cleaner energy, Health, Good governance, Technology, Production and Consumption, Oceans and Fisheries, Tourism. Other related issues such as globalization, women’s rights were also discussed.

There were also 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:


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 responsibility.

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 Johannesburg Declaration builds on earlier declarations made at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, and the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. While committing the nations of the world to sustainable development, it also includes substantial mention of multilateralism as the path forward.

The international environmental policies established by Earth Summit 2002 were a direct result of ideas produced by previous international environmental conferences.

UNCHE, 1972

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.

The most notable of these previous conferences are the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, and United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, was the first major international conference on the environment. The UNCHE, also called the Stockholm Conference, produced the Declaration of the Conference on the Human Environment and the Action Plan for the Human Environment. The Declaration of the Conference noted that population growth, developing economies, and technological and industrial advancements harmed the environment. The Declaration of the Conference also couched environmentalism in human rights terms, asserting that every human has the right to a clean and healthy environment.

The action plan of the Stockholm Conference contained 109 specific recommendations for achieving the goals set forth in the declaration. The action plan, which also called for establishing international standards for pollutants, recommended continued scientific research into the effect of pollutants on the environment. A network of pollution monitoring agencies would monitor pollution levels across the world. The United Nations founded the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972 largely to implement initiatives in the action plan and to provide financial and technical support to developing nations on environmental issues.


Following this conference, the United Nations appointed a World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983 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, it is also called the Brundtland Commission. The Brundtland Commission addressed three major environmental issues. First, the commission examined critical environmental and sustainable developmental issues. The commission then devised proposals for addressing these issues. Second, the commission proposed new ways in which the international community could cooperate on environmental and sustainable development issues.

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission issued Our Common Future, a report of its findings and recommendations. Our Common Future asserted that sustainable development must be addressed by any international environmental initiative. Our Common Future defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Since Our Common Future, every UN conference on the environment has made sustainable development a core aspect of international environmental policy. Our Common Future asserted that the international community could only resolve the interlocking crises of environmental preservation, economic development, and energy production through a comprehensive sustainable development plan.


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.

The gathering resulted in several seminal international environmental law conventions that continue to shape international action on environmental issues.


The Rio Declaration on Environment and Agenda 21 is a comprehensive environmental and sustainable development plan that requires cooperation from intergovernmental agencies, national and local governments, and NGOs. It addresses four topics: Social and Economic Dimensions, Conservation and Management of Resources for Development, Strengthening the Role of Major Groups, and Means of Implementation. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development is responsible for executing the principles of Agenda 21Development and Agenda 21 are the most notable reports produced by Earth Summit 1992.


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.


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.


The United Nations highlighted several of the Summit’s achievements.

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.


  • 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 neighboring 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.
  • While these were on the positive side, World Wildlife Fund, one of the world’s leading conservation organizations felt the Summit didn’t do enough.

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).


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


It is easy for any nation, or organization, or business to say they support something, but as various organizations have argued, this summit became an arena for nations and businesses to say they will do things, while often avoiding actual obligations. In addition, because the sanitation agreement was the only really concrete agreement, development and citizen groups saw the summit as a failure.

Many participants and NGOs consider this summit, also called Earth Summit 2002, less successful than Earth Summit 1992, because it did not produce any groundbreaking international environmental agreements.

Various organizations, some leaders and delegates from developing countries were critical on numerous aspects of the world system, especially on the agendas and interests of the richer nations. The World Development Movement, for example, felt the summit was a failure for the world’s majority, and that “much of the failure can be attributed to the two major world powers – the US for active obstruction and the EU for pursuing the politics of self-interest.”

The main agreement produced by Earth Summit 2002, the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, merely reiterates many of the goals contained in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. The Johannesburg Declaration also does not contain many specific proposals for preserving the environment or promoting sustainable development. Instead, the Johannesburg Declaration addresses the environment and sustainable development in more general terms.

There were various controversies over issues of governance, influence, power and politics, and lack of truly democratic processes at the international level. For example, numerous developing country leaders commented on the interest and agendas of rich nations and multinationals as having a detrimental impact on the poor, increasing and causing poverty, and that the legacy of colonialism was still being felt hard.

As another example, many accused the U.S. of attempting to water down any final agreements. On the final day of speeches, many protestors (including many Americans) and even delegates from countries around the world, jeered U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell as he delivered his speech in the closing part of the Summit (President George Bush was not in attendance). The actions of the U.S. have been highly controversial during the Summit. Even U.S. protests groups have been vocal and dismayed at their leaders., detailing some of this criticism on U.S. actions, even reports that “Following the [NGO] press conference [on the final day of the Summit], members of NGOs from the United States pinned a large U.S. flag to the wall outside the briefing room, On it they had written: “Thank you, President Bush, for making the U.S. so hated.””.

No doubt that from these business interests and free-market ideology, there is some valid criticism as well. Some environmental “extremists” may unwittingly be suggesting policies that might hamper long-term economic development for poorer nations. Yet, at the same time, points are made for example that economic growth leads to better environmental qualities. But, this is an ideologically based oversimplification, because it ignores those very same political factors and influences surrounding economic growth, development, and the environment that have been pushed by and turned out to be beneficial for various business interests at the expense of these other issues.

For example, economic growth of the wealthy countries has been at the direct cost to poorer nations (for centuries controlling, extracting, and using much of their resources), and more recently, by things like exporting pollution to the poorer regions, which makes the wealthier nations’ environment appear even cleaner while regions in the South get even dirtier. Graphs and charts might show a nice correlation between economic growth and environmental health, but they don’t necessarily capture these political decisions. (This, while the U.S. for example is still the world’s largest polluter, as highlighted in various discussions and global meetings regarding climate change.) Years of devastating structural adjustment in much of the third world by the rich nation-heavy IMF and World Bank has meant that the third world nations have been opened up for easier exploitation of labor and the environment.


In terms of the political commitment of parties, the Declaration is a more general statement than the Rio Declaration. It is an agreement to focus particularly on “the worldwide conditions that pose severe threats to the sustainable development of our people,

Some understandably criticized the summit as over-ambitious to try and talk about so many issues. Yet, true or not, it shows that there is at least an apparent growing recognition that sustainable development (admittedly a somewhat overused word) means a myriad of inter-related issues, not something solely in the realms of environmentalism, but also deep into economics (which governs how resources are used), and a variety of sociopolitical issues.


  1. Earth Summit , 2002 , young people’s trust for the environment at
  2. 2002 Johannesburg Earth Summit on Sustainable Development at
  3. World Summit on Sustainable Development at

This article is written by Advocate A.H. Gangohi.