What is Agenda 21?

By now, you have probably heard of that nefarious UN plot to install bicycle lanes in your neighborhood and smart meters in your home. Last week, the New York Times clued us on to the fact that a certain cadre of American voters seem to believe that the United Nations is imposing an agenda of environmental sustainability in their own communities — and these voters are fighting this intrusion in Town Halls across the country.

Certain political parties are even egging this on.

The Republican National Committee resolution, passed without fanfare on Jan. 13, declared, “The United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called ‘sustainable development’ views the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms; all as destructive to the environment.”

In 1992 world leaders gathered in Rio de Janero for the first ever Conference on Sustainability and the Environment. This meeting lead to three documents: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests; and Agenda 21. 178 world leaders, including President George HW Bush, signed these documents. (So Agenda 21 does exist! And it’s about environmental sustainability! You can read it here. )

It was actually a big deal at the time. This meeting, known in UN circles as simply “Rio,” was the first time that the international community agreed that the environment was something worth protecting and that long term economic development cannot be achieved without attention to principles of sustainability.

So what is Agenda 21? Well, it’s not exactly an “agenda” as you are I might understand the term. Rather, it is more a statement of common values, along with some ideas about how to express those values through public policy.  Out of political and diplomatic necessity these recommendations are pretty anodyne things. In order to gain the consensus of countries as different as the United States, Russia, Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, Ghana and Laos, for example, the document can’t be at all controversial.  When there are recommendations, there is nothing in the document to compel governments to do anything.  Take, for example, the section on transportation.

2. Transportation

Basis for action

9.13. The transport sector has an essential and positive role to play in economic and social development, and transportation needs will undoubtedly increase. However, since the transport sector is also a source of atmospheric emissions, there is need for a review of existing transport systems and for more effective design and management of traffic and transport systems.


9.14. The basic objective of this programme area is to develop and promote cost-effective policies or programmes, as appropriate, to limit, reduce or control, as appropriate, harmful emissions into the atmosphere and other adverse environmental effects of the transport sector, taking into account development priorities as well as the specific local and national circumstances and safety aspects.


9.15. Governments at the appropriate level, with the cooperation of the relevant United Nations bodies and, as appropriate, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and the private sector, should:

(a) Develop and promote, as appropriate, cost-effective, more efficient, less polluting and safer transport systems, particularly integrated rural and urban mass transit, as well as environmentally sound road networks, taking into account the needs for sustainable social, economic and development priorities, particularly in developing countries;

(b) Facilitate at the international, regional, subregional and national levels access to and the transfer of safe, efficient, including resource-efficient, and less polluting transport technologies, particularly to the developing countries, including the implementation of appropriate training programmes;

(c) Strengthen, as appropriate, their efforts at collecting, analysing and exchanging relevant information on the relation between environment and transport, with particular emphasis on the systematic observation of emissions and the development of a transport database;

(d) In accordance with national socio-economic development and environment priorities, evaluate and, as appropriate, promote cost-effective policies or programmes, including administrative, social and economic measures, in order to encourage use of transportation modes that minimize adverse impacts on the atmosphere;

(e) Develop or enhance, as appropriate, mechanisms to integrate transport planning strategies and urban and regional settlement planning strategies, with a view to reducing the environmental impacts of transport;

(f) Study, within the framework of the United Nations and its regional commissions, the feasibility of convening regional conferences on transport and the environment.

It is kind of hard to find anything controversial in there because the document very deliberately eschewed controversy. And nothing in this document compels a state, local or national government to do anything. It is not treaty and it has no force of law.

So why the uproar? Well, it is true that this is a UN document. Presidents and Prime ministers met under the UN umbrella in Rio when they signed this thing. And it is also true that Agenda 21 is a UN document that promotes ideals of environmental sustainability.

So now, groups that oppose local environmental ordinances combine these two kernels of truth to spin a yarn about how the UN is robbing American communities of their liberty.  Ranchers who oppose proposed local land use ordinances in rural states, or oil-industry backed groups that seek to undermine public transportation initiatives invoke conspiracy theories to rally people to their cause. These conspiracy theories are simply a tool used by political and economic interests that believe they have something to lose from smart growth initiatives. Accordingly, they taint supporters of bike lanes or smart meters or La Plata, Colorado County Commissioners as foreign agents intent on imposing a UN agenda to rob people of their liberty.

If this sounds crazy, it’s because it is. And it is not going away anytime soon. For one, we can expect local and national political leaders to invoke “Agenda 21” conspiracies as we enter election season.  Deeper still, in June, the international community is once again convening in Rio for “Rio + 20” a major conference on sustainable development to mark the 20 year anniversary of the first Rio conference. Given the renewed interest in Agenda 21 by fringe elements, I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this.