Agenda 21 is the voluminous policy document that emanated from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Using a brief case study of China's energy use - specifically its use of coal - this article illustrates the degree to which objectives of Agenda 21 are reflected in China's economic development policies and practices. China has started to shift its economic development toward a more environmentally sustainable trajectory, as reflected in its changing policies on energy derived from coal burning. We conclude that while China's environmental policies have been stimulated in part by Agenda 21 and other international environmental undertakings, such 'soft' international agreements are far from the only important determinants and variables. Many factors, such a bureaucratic infighting, disagreements between central and provincial governments, as well as corruption, severely delimit the extent and efficacy of energy policies and other environmental regulations. Because economic growth remains central to development goals, existing environmental policies are only a start toward environmentally sustainable development. Environmental decline still outpaces sustainable development in China, and this will continue for many years to come.