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Background to Local Agenda 21

What is "Local Agenda 21"?.
Local Agenda 21 is the mandate
to local governments to translate
the United Nations Action Plan
for the 21st century (Agenda 21)
to the local level.

So how did Local Agenda 21 come about?

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission produced a report entitled Our Common Future. Five years later, in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) brought 179 heads of governments together in Rio de Janeiro. It focused world attention on critical issues of sustainability and natural resources, and mapped out a plan of action for future global partnership to achieve concrete goals.

Agenda 21 was one of five documents produced:

  • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
  • a statement of principles to guide sustainable management of forests
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Agenda 21
Agenda 21 is the plan to implement the agreements of Rio. It guides business and government policies into the 21st century. It identifies population, consumption and technology as the primary driving forces of environmental change and proposes what needs to be done to reduce wasteful and inefficient consumption patterns in some parts of the world while carefully managing natural resources.

All the world leaders attending the conference signed the declaration undertaking to achieve worldwide sustainable development. This is the declaration underlying Agenda 21: the action programme for the coming century.

Agenda 21 explains that population, consumption and technology are the primary driving forces of environmental change. It lays out what needs to be done to reduce wasteful and inefficient consumption patterns in some parts of the world while encouraging increased but sustainable development in others. It offers policies and programmes to achieve a sustainable balance between consumption, population and the Earth’s life-supporting capacity. It describes some of technologies and techniques that need to be developed to provide for human needs while carefully managing natural resources.

Agenda 21 provides options for combating degradation of the land, air and water, conserving forests and the diversity of species of life. It deals with poverty and excessive consumption, health and education, cities and farmers. There are roles for everyone: governments, business people, trade unions, scientists, teachers, indigenous people, women, youth and children. Agenda 21 does not shun business. It says that sustainable development is the way to reverse both poverty and environmental destruction.

Accounting systems that measure the wealth of nations also need to count the full value of natural resources and the full cost of environmental degradation. The polluter should, in principle, bear the costs of pollution. To reduce the risk of causing damage, environmental assessment should be carried out before starting projects that carry the risk of adverse impacts. Governments should reduce or eliminate subsidies that are not consistent with sustainable development.

A major theme of Agenda 21 is the need to eradicate poverty by giving poor people more access to the resources they need to live sustainably. By adopting Agenda 21, industrialized countries recognized that they have a greater role in cleaning up the environment than poor nations, who produce relatively less pollution. The richer nations also promised more funding to help other nations develop in ways that have lower environmental impacts. Beyond funding, nations need help in building the expertise— the capacity— to plan and carry out sustainable development decisions. This will require the transfer of information and skills.

Agenda 21 calls on governments to adopt national strategies for sustainable development. These should be developed with wide participation, including non-government organizations and the public. Agenda 21 puts most of the responsibility for leading change on national governments, but says they need to work in a broad series of partnerships with international organizations, business, regional, state, provincial and local governments, non-governmental and citizens’ groups.

As Agenda 21 says, only a global partnership will ensure that all nations will have a safer and more prosperous future.


Sources: Compiled and collated from IISD, Estonia21, ICLEI and others.
Local Agenda 21
Return to the Local Agenda 21 page
Contact: Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org