Only a few specialists can remember what was decided back then in Brazil, but most people will vaguely recall the event as the mother of all summits. It seemed to go on for an awfully long time - nearly two weeks - and more than 150 heads of state and government dropped in, attended by thousands of journalists, diplomats, civil servants and experts. And now, as the fifth anniversary rolls around, world leaders have been persuaded they should mark the event with another great gathering and a 23,000-word text saying what ought to be done.
But why on earth bother? What is the point of all that foreign travel, those motorbike cavalcades through Manhattan, when the gap between rhetoric and reality is so wide and growing. Since Rio, the globe has had five years of expanding trade and furious but patchy economic growth. Many countries, and most of one continent - Africa - have been left out. The gap between rich and poor nations has grown, and so has the gap between rich and poor within countries.
The serious, global environmental crises they speechified on in Brazil have deepened - the destruction of forests, freshwater shortages, worldwide overfishing and mass extinction of species to name just four. As the population continues to soar, both poverty and wealth destroy nature's life-support systems. Poor people strip forests for firewood and erode the soil. The affluent want more cars and air travel, more air conditioning, electricity and space. But as we mess up our relationship with nature, knowing we are storing up trouble ahead, we are all in this together. We all have to make changes and the rich have to help the poor.
George, John, Helmut and Francois and more than 100 other leaders recognised this in Brazil back in 1992. "States shall co-operate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem," they promised in the Rio Declaration. At the same time, the developed nations made a rather vague undertaking, in a new UN climate treaty, to bring their rising annual emissions of climate- changing "greenhouse gases" back to their 1990 level by the year 2000.
With three years to go, it is now certain that most are going to break their word. Since 1992 emissions from rich nations have kept on rising even as we begin to see the first signs of man-made climate change around the world. There is now indisputably a real risk of harmful climate shifts during the adult lives of today's children. And as we keep on burning more and more fossil fuels, as greenhouse gases keep on building up in the atmosphere, the changes in rainfall, temperatures, winds and ocean currents will grow with each passing decade.
The developed nations, which have caused most of the pollution to date, are not willing to do anything really effective about it. To act decisively might be politically unpopular. It might knock half a per cent off their annual economic growth. And anyway, they can be pretty confident that the poor nations will suffer much more from climate shifts than the rich. Meanwhile the growth in emissions from developing countries such as China is even more rapid as they use ever more oil, gas and coal to industrialise.
So, not much global partnership there. Now look what has happened to overseas aid from rich to poor. At Rio in 1992 the developed countries said they "reaffirm their commitments to reach the accepted United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Product for overseas development assistance". At the time they were giving 0.34 per cent of their collective GNP to the poor nations; overseas aid has fallen to 0.27 per cent since. Britain's foreign aid has also been falling and now stands at 0.27 per cent of GNP.
Of course, foreign aid alone could never save the world from ecological crises. Indeed, bad aid schemes - like the UK-funded Pergau dam in Malaysia - have done great environmental and social damage. But the overall volume of official government aid, raised from the taxpayers of rich nations for the world's poor, signals the strength of the feelings of solidarity among the travellers on Spaceship Earth. Clearly business class wants little to do with economy.
So, five years on, there appears to be more of a spirit of "I'm all right, Jack" than of global partnership. There is, alas, little reason to hope that next month's Earth Summit II in New York, a week-long Special Session of the UN General Assembly, will change things. The world leaders will each make a speech while their ministers, officials and diplomats haggle over the precise contents of a long, impenetrable text, full of 100-word sentences and sub-clauses. Like Rio's 400-page Agenda 21, it says what ought to be done - but it does not legally bind nations and few people will ever read it.
They are also expected to produce a much shorter, punchier "political" declaration. The consultation draft of this says the world's prime ministers and presidents now "pledge to work together in good faith and in the spirit of partnership to achieve our commitments. We decide to move now from words to deeds".
If only ... but don't hold your breath. And the fault is as much ours as theirs. Ours in the media, in that we treat such summits as important events if our own leader goes along. We report the rhetoric, get swept up with the whole idea of the big chiefs jetting in to work together on solving big problems, when the reality is quite different. From the leaders' point of view it is mainly about image. Merely to turn up and make a speech is to show their concern for the global environment. They don't actually meet as a group to debate and problem solve at all. They fly back home, and whatever they said is soon forgotten.
It is also the fault of us, the electorate. The reason the politicians get away with cutting overseas aid, with reneging on their promises to protect the Earth's climate, is because they pick up the signals that we have more immediate priorities - like cheap energy and low taxes.
These Earth Summit failures are not the end of the world. Across the planet, in the absence of grand global agreements which change anything, millions of problems are being solved at lower levels by individual nations, cities and villages, businesses and families. People are constantly discovering how to exploit nature sustainably because they recognise that they will suffer if they don't. There are myriad solutions and amid the overall environmental decline there have been thousands of little success stories and a few big ones.
But on several global environmental issues, notably climate change, only concerted international action can work. What use is it if Britain cuts its global warming emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 (as the new Government is as yet unconvincingly pledged to do) if the rest of the world fails to act? We produce only three per cent of global emissions, so it would make not a blind bit of difference. Earth summits, then, ought to be more than just hot air - and we should neither forgive nor forget when they are.Reuse content