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The schedule that should have been followed: Agenda 21

An action plan to promote sustainable development worldwide, at local, state, and international levels. Adopted in 1992, during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit), its main weakness is that it is a non-legally binding resolution.

Agenda (a detailed list of priorities, organized chronologically) 21 (referring to the 21st century), strives to be a global action plan to reduce the differences between rich and poor countries in the most sustainable way possible.

The text of Agenda 21 was approved by 179 countries at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, after having been negotiated since 1989.

Rio +5 and the Johannesburg Summit: little achieved

In 1997, a five-year period after the Earth Summit, the General Assembly of the UN held a special session to evaluate the progress achieved during the five years with the Agenda 21 in effect (hence, the name of the session: Rio +5).

The UN recognized the slow and “unequal” progress. An express mention was made of the rise of phenomena like growing globalization, the increase in inequalities between rich and poor and the acceleration in the deterioration of the environment. A new UN resolution (s-19/2) promised more energetic action.

Ten years after the Rio Summit, the Johannesburg Summit (also called the World Summit on Sustainable Development) of 2002 reaffirmed:

  • The “commitment” of the UN to apply the Agenda 21.
  • Compliance with the Millennium Development Goals (eight objectives that the 191 member countries of the UN agreed to achieve by 2015) and other international agreements signed by the majority of the countries of the world.


The Commission of Sustainable Development, that depends on the UN Social and Economic Counsel, is charged with applying Agenda 21.

Or to try to apply it, since Agenda 21 is not binding and, therefore, no country is obligated to comply, also its fundamental weak point.

Structure and contents

The Agenda 21 (with more than 900 pages) has 40 chapters, divided into four fundamental thematic areas:

  • Section I (chapters 1 to 8). Economic and social dimensions: to fight poverty, to change models of consumption, demographic dynamics, promotion of health, promotion of the guidelines of sustainable urban development, integration of sustainable development and environment decision making processes.
  • Section II (chapters 9 to 22). Conservation and management of resources for development: protection of the atmosphere, how to combat deforestation, protection of threatened ecosystems, preservation of biological diversity (biodiversity), and pollution control.
  • Section III (chapters 23 to 32). Strengthening the role of the main groups: rights and tasks of children and youth, women, NGOs, local authorities, businesses and workers.
  • Section IV (chapters 33 to 40). Methods of execution: science, technological transfer, education, international institutions and mechanisms of financial and economic development.

Local Agenda 21

Agenda 21 was ratified so that application of its sustainable development principles could be carried out at all levels: global, regional, federal, national and local.

The local development of the principles of Agenda 21, explained in chapter 28 of the document, receives serious promotion in European and Latin American countries, among others regions of the world.

In chapter 28 of the Agenda 21 it is proposed:

“Each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations and private enterprises and adopt “a local Agenda 21″. Through consultation and consensus-building, local authorities would learn from citizens and from local, civic, community, business and industrial organizations and acquire the information needed for formulating the best strategies. The process of consultation would increase household awareness of sustainable development issues.”

European mea culpa

In Europe, Agenda 21 was carried out through the Aalborg Charter (Denmark, 1994).

In the document, the countries of Western Europe explained that cities will play an important role in the global transformation toward sustainability, as well as recognizing that Europe should be a part of the solution, having created a big part of the problem.

“We understand that our present urban lifestyle, in particular our patterns of division of labour and functions, land-use, transport, industrial production, agriculture, consumption, and leisure activities, and hence our standard of living, make us essentially responsible for many environmental problems humankind is facing” (Aalborg Charter, Denmark 1994).