The Earth Summit: What Went Wrong at Rio?

Washington University Law Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4, p. 1005, 1992

Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper Series Palmer Paper No. 40

25 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2012 Last revised: 24 Feb 2015

See all articles by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: 1992


At the request of the Washington University School of Law and the Washington University Environmental Law Society, Sir Geoffrey Palmer visited Washington University School of Law and delivered this lecture. He argues that more should have been achieved for the future of the environment. The big failure of Rio was a failure of political leadership, commitment and vision. Many opportunities were lost. Rio scores barely a passing grade, although it is possible that, in time, the achievement will blossom into meaningful environmental progress. How quickly and to what extent this may occur cannot now be predicted. A great deal was promised for Rio, and perhaps it was not reasonable to expect that it could meet these expectations. The general rhetoric suggested that this was the Conference to save the world. In theory, the need for international environmental governance is supported strongly by many countries. But, when it comes to implementation, the commitment is much weaker.

The author asks several questions in determining the success or failure of the Rio Conference and concludes that there is no doubt that the UNCED process substantially raised the level of environmental consciousness around the world. The agreements contained a wide range of detailed issues. Yet Rio did not produce enough binding new principles of international environmental law sufficient to protect the environment against known threats or secure its future. The necessary structural adjustments were not made – they were not even addressed.

The paper compares Rio to the earlier Stockholm meeting of 1972, finding that one tell-tale sign of the lack of success at Rio compared with Stockholm involved the issue of whaling. In 1992, Rio was unable even to secure the same degree of agreement on whaling even though an agreement should have been less controversial in 1992 than it had been in 1972. The paper also tracks the development of environmental principles in international diplomacy, including the principle of sustainable development. The politics behind such a principle are good – it comprises a matrix that binds those who believe in the need to protect the environment with those who want economic growth and development. Also, it provides a framework under which both developed and developing nations can find common ground. The power of the concept begins to disintegrate, however, when one attempts to break it down into its constituent elements and make practical decisions to implement the idea. To some degree this explains the difficulty at Rio. Another major difficulty was that much was said about it in the planning stages, and expectations were raised which were hard to satisfy. The agenda that was set was so fixed, wide, and embracing that it constituted a challenge that would not be met.

The paper considers the outcomes from Rio – the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, the Declaration on Forests, the Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, and the Sustainable Development Commission – and finds them all lacking despite their lofty aims. In the pragmatic world of political decision making, short-term considerations generally take priority over long-term solutions. Rio was infected with this pragmatic mode of political thinking. But unless political fixation with the immediate and the need for instant gratification is quickly curtailed, and unless we are able to advance sustainable development rapidly and decisively, we will in the end be unable to consume world resources at current levels and in the present patterns of consumption. If we do not embrace an aggressive stance to implementing sustainable development, then we are doomed.

Keywords: Rio Declaration, Earth Summit, international law, environmental law, international environmental law, climate change

JEL Classification: K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Palmer QC, Sir Geoffrey, The Earth Summit: What Went Wrong at Rio? (1992). Washington University Law Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4, p. 1005, 1992 ; Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper Series Palmer Paper No. 40. Available at SSRN:

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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