Agenda 21 is a comprehensive, global action plan adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It outlines a blueprint for achieving sustainable development worldwide.
The roots of Agenda 21 can be traced to the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm which put environmental issues on the global agenda. However, the limitations of the Stockholm Conference spurred calls for a new global meeting. Hence, Agenda 21 emerged from extensive preparations from 1989-1992, including input from governments and experts. The plan was adopted by 178 governments at the June 1992 Earth Summit.
Agenda 21 comprises four key sections detailing objectives, activities, and means of implementation:
- Social and economic dimensions – poverty, health, human settlements development;
- Conservation and resource management – atmosphere, land resources like forests, deserts; biodiversity, biotechnology, oceans;
- Strengthening major groups’ role – women, youth, indigenous people, NGOs, local authorities;
- Means of implementation – financial resources, technology transfer, education.
The plan outlines both globally-focused and locally-specific actions toward a sustainable world. Sustainable agriculture, combating deforestation and desertification, reducing wasteful consumption and production patterns are all part of Agenda 21.
Agenda 21 represented a global consensus on integrating environment and development for sustainability and poverty reduction. Rather than choosing either economic progress or environmental protection, governments realized both are necessary and can be complementary. Agenda 21 promoted participative democracy and local empowerment rather than top-down decision making. The decentralization of sustainable development policy and decisions to communities and grassroots levels was a key theme.
Agenda 21 is a non-binding and voluntary for governments. Progress has depended largely on national and local circumstances. Inadequate funding from developed countries has hampered implementation for many developing countries. UN assessments also show uneven adoption across different areas like water, energy, agriculture and biodiversity. Climate change risks further undermine gains made by developing countries. There are also criticisms that Agenda 21 is a vehicle for global control infringing on national sovereignty.
Despite limitations, Agenda 21 has encouraged action for sustainability across local to international arenas for over 30 years. Many nations have adopted national sustainable development strategies based on its framework. Cities and local authorities have been at the forefront of driving Agenda 21 programmes that can positively impact people’s lives and communities on the ground. Agenda 21 laid the early groundwork for achieving a sustainable planet and just, equitable societies.