Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

Posted on March 27, 2013 by John Dernbach

At a local government meeting on a land use plan, officials hear opposition based on the claim that it is tainted by Agenda 21.  A state public utility commission considering smart meters hears similar claims.  They are confused: what is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

A well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists well outside the realm of ordinary environmental law work.  But it is beginning to affect that work.  The real target of this campaign, moreover, is not Agenda 21 but sustainable development—a common sense approach to reconciling environment and development that provides the basis for our environmental and land use laws.  Environmental lawyers thus need a basic understanding of what Agenda 21 is and what it is not.     

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive public strategy for achieving sustainable development. It was endorsed by the U.S. (under the presidency of George H.W. Bush) and other countries at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.  Agenda 21 stands for two broad propositions: 1) environmental goals and considerations need to be integrated into all development decisions, and 2) governments and their many stakeholders should work out the best way to integrate environment and development decisions in an open and democratic way. 

Agenda 21 contains an almost encyclopedic description of the best ideas for achieving sustainable development that existed in 1992.  On land use, it specifically counsels respect for private property.    It contains a detailed description of the role that many nongovernmental entities, including business and industry, farmers, unions, and others, should play in achieving sustainability. 

Agenda 21 endorses, and to a great degree is based upon, ideas that were already expressed in U.S. environmental and natural resources laws.  Its core premise is espoused in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Long before Agenda 21, NEPA set out “the continuing policy of the Federal government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331). 

Ironically, Agenda 21 was never taken seriously as such in the United States; there has never been much enthusiasm here for following international agreements.  It is not a legally binding treaty; it contains no provisions for ratification, for example.  Agenda 21 also says nothing about new ideas like green building, smart growth, and smart meters.  But sustainable development as an idea—achieving economic development, job creation, human wellbeing, and environmental protection and restoration at the same time—is gaining traction. 

In response, opponents are attacking sustainability by making false statements about Agenda 21.  They say that Agenda 21 is opposed to democracy, freedom, private property, and development, and would foster environmental extremism.  For many opponents, the absence of a textual basis in Agenda 21 for such claims (in fact, the text explicitly contradicts all of these claims) is not a problem.  First, they are attacking a document that is not well known, and so they count on not being contradicted.  Second, the false version of Agenda 21 fits a well known narrative that is based on fear of global governance and a perceived threat of totalitarianism, and on distrust of the United Nations.  Indeed, the absence of information to support such fears only deepens their perception of a conspiracy.  According to this view, moreover, people who talk about sustainable development without mentioning Agenda 21 are simply masking their true intentions.  

Far-fetched, you say?  Well, consider this: in 2012, Alabama adopted legislation that prohibits the state or political subdivisions from adopting or implementing policies “that infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’” (Ala. Code § 35-1-6).  This, of course, could chill a variety of otherwise ordinary state and local decisions.  Similar bills are pending in state legislatures across the country. 

In a variety of other places, elected officials and professional staff who have worked with stakeholders for years to produce specific land use and energy proposals find their work mischaracterized as the product of Agenda 21, even though they have never heard of it.   Agenda 21’s lack of direct relevance to the specific proposals should, but does not always, provide an answer to such claims. 

The campaign against Agenda 21 has no serious empirical or textual foundation.  But it can work against sustainability and good decisions—and cost time and money—when clients and their lawyers don’t recognize it for what it is.

Quick Takes on Rio + 20

Posted on July 25, 2012 by Leslie Carothers

If the Rio Summit concluded last month met expectations, it’s because they were so low.  The 49 page document summarizing the agreement by the government representatives, The Future We Want, was largely stripped of strong language and substantive commitments.  From my perspective, two failures and one success in the agreement stand out.  First, the diplomats could not muster a firm commitment to the UN Secretary General’s goal of ensuring universal access to energy services and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources by 2030.   Paragraph 127 on energy sources seems to give equal status to high and low carbon fuels, and earlier language endorsing reduction of environmentally and economically harmful subsidies was dropped. This was not an encouraging result for a summit focused on advancing a “green economy.”

Second, the final document also watered down statements of support for the rights of women to family planning services as well as ownership of various forms of property. Although 105 national science organizations joined many women’s groups in urging a strong stance on moderating population growth by providing reproductive health services wanted by women, objections by the Holy See (aka the Vatican) and backward members of the G-77 developing countries’ coalition caused numerous small changes in wording (e.g. promote vs. ensure) that ended up barely preserving existing UN commitments to rights to reproductive health services.  (See the analysis by Rebecca Lifton at the Center for American Progress) The brightest spot in the final agreement is a comparatively aggressive set of commitments to protect and restore oceans and marine resources.  Professor Ann Powers, oceans expert at Pace Law School, attended the summit and notes that 20 of the 238 paragraphs of the agreement dealt with oceans issues like plastic debris and fisheries management and included most of what ocean advocates sought.

The non-governmental attendees were far more successful in making commitments and connections.   Many members of the business community, for example, continued the tradition, begun in 1992, of active participation in the Rio meeting as an environmental trade fair in ideas, products, and contacts.   In one notable project, a consortium of 24 companies, collaborating with the Corporate EcoForum and the Nature Conservancy, has been working toward the goal of valuing natural resources used and saved by companies.  According to Neil Hawkins, Vice President for Environment, Health, and Sustainability at Dow Chemical, the goal of pricing ecosystem services to mobilize markets in advancing sustainable development was a major focus of events at the Rio summit. The meeting was a catalyst for making specific company commitments to develop and test valuation methodologies as well as an opportunity to educate a broader audience on progress being made.    

Finally, the legal profession sponsored a varied menu of law and governance programs. The World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability convened judges, prosecutors, practitioners, and auditors to debate how to make environmental law more effective and how to increase public access to legal remedies.  (See the Rio + 20 Declaration of the Congress). At a time when multilateral diplomacy cannot produce a binding agenda, lawyers are challenged to find new ways to secure commitments from parties willing to act to advance environmental progress.