Environmental mega-conferences - From Stockholm to Johannesburg and beyond

G Seyfang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Citations (Scopus)


The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg in August 2002 was the fourth environmental ‘mega’ conference since the first held in Stockholm in 1972. Its aim was to discuss how much progress has been made since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and plan further action for the future. This paper first reviews the history and evolution of the environmental ‘mega conferences’ and outlines six core functions which they seek to perform. These are: setting global agendas; facilitating ‘joined-up thinking’; endorsing common principles; providing global leadership; building institutional capacity; and legitimising global governance through inclusivity. Using this evaluative framework, the outcomes, achievements and disappointments of the Johannesburg summit are discussed, along with an evaluation of the future role of such mega-conferences. The paper concludes that environmental mega-conferences do serve an important function in contemporary environmental governance, even though they are not the panaceas that some had originally hoped they might be. In many ways WSSD was a wasted opportunity for progress—politicians lacked the will for adopt ambitious action plans, which frustrated and disappointed participants in the vibrant civil society summit which accompanied the official meeting. The sustainable development agendas have now been set and consolidated, and the task facing politicians is to implement the agreements. This will be achieved and monitored in different fora to the mega-conferences that had originally opened the debates. The task now is for the UN to incorporate the views of citizen's groups and NGOs, and build on bottom-up activism, at the same time as top-down governmental decision-making.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-228
Number of pages6
JournalGlobal Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions
Issue number3
Early online date4 Sep 2003
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2003

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