Global environmental policy between successes and failures – fifty years after Stockholm 1972

Where We Stand

What have we learned from the last 50 years? This review highlights some important milestones in global environmental policy. 

International environmental policy is turning fifty. The UN Conference on the Human Environment, which was held in Stockholm in 1972, is considered to be the hour of its birth within the framework of the UN. It was there that the United Nations Environment Programme laid the foundation for institutionalized environmental policy at the international level. This June, the Swedish government is co-hosting the 50th anniversary together with Kenya, where the UNEP is headquartered.

A reason to celebrate? To look back on the complete picture of the past fifty years is impossible in this text. There are many facets and complex factors relevant to the successes and failures of UN environment and development policy over the past fifty years, not all of which can be analyzed below – for example, how spheres of power and geopolitical influence and the interests of powerful business lobbies have prevailed.

Böll.Thema Umweltpolitik: Klima-Demonstration

We know that "we" should have done much, much better: the climate catastrophe is a reality for countless millions of people. All UN reports on the state of the climate, oceans, soil, forests, bodies of water and biodiversity show how much we are overusing or destroying nature and ecosystems. This retrospective view is not about moral finger-pointing or knowing it all. People have always resisted the destruction of the basis of their lives, and the beginnings of cross-border environmental movements can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. People around the globe have protested, met, published and lobbied against nuclear power and global warming, the destruction of forests, for the preservation of ecosystems and thus our livelihoods, for peace, against hunger and poverty in the world, and over the years have placed their hopes in UN conferences and multilateral agreements.

What can we learn from the last fifty years? It is important to recall at least some key reasons to understand why we are still a long way from the Great Transformation, and why we are increasingly struggling to keep up with multiple crises instead of preventing them. What were the important milestones of global environmental policy, and at which decisive points did the political decision-makers and business and functionary elites opt for "business as usual" – despite all of the scientific findings, alternative solutions and warnings in essential points? This brief review can at most highlight a few patterns, narratives, and political-economic trajectories of the past decades. Perhaps this is a learning field.

Yes to environmental protection – but the global South wanted to catch up on development through industrialization

In the mid-1960s, the world was still deeply divided into stark contrasts and blocs – East-West and North-South. Nevertheless, an awareness was taking hold that the destruction of the environment and nature does not stop at national borders. The Scandinavian countries, for example, were hard-hit by acid rain – pollution from other regions of Europe. Insecticides such as DDT, in use since the 1940s, had accumulated in food chains across borders and killed many species ("Silent Spring"). Smog in metropolitan areas such as London, Tokyo, New York or the industrial cities of Germany's Ruhr valley (the home of the "Krupp cough"), serious tanker accidents with devastating oil spills, and polluted rivers such as the Rhine that had become sewers showed the environmental and health consequences of unchecked industrialization. Initial studies and reports were released; the most influential was certainly the first report of the Club of Rome, "Limits to Growth" in 1972, which resonated strongly. The issues it addressed included not only environmental pollution, but above all a scarcity of resources. Pollution and shortages – and the associated struggles over distribution – were gradually being recognized even as a threat to the Northern production model. The North was therefore primarily interested in international agreements on environmental protection and improved resource management that would not entail any competitive disadvantages.

The UN – which at that point had not really been active in environmental issues – was to be won over as an actor for the global environmental cause. This implied that all countries of the then Eastern Bloc – which were not all represented in Stockholm – and the countries of the global South had to be included. The interests and starting points thus varied widely. For the countries of the global South, fighting poverty was a priority. The Stockholm conference of 1972 thus not only marked the birth of global environmental negotiations, but also a new stage in negotiations related to development and – so it seemed – for a more equitable distribution of access to money and resources.

For industrialized countries, the means of choice to limit industrial pollution were technical environmental protection, resource management for economically important ecosystems such as water bodies and forests, and improved data collection – e.g. the first environmental satellites. This first stage of national and international environmental policy included government regulations and legislative initiatives, limits and bans. In the United States, for example, the 1970s were among the most successful years of government environmental policy. Bans and limits on various emissions (toxins, wastewater, garbage, sulfur dioxide) or at the global level (ban on trade in endangered species, later on hydrofluorocarbons) achieved effective and visible successes in environmental policy. The air got better, rivers – at first glance – cleaner.

The global South had its focus on poverty reduction, jobs, health and education. Here, the desire to catch up on development through industrialization predominated. Environmental protection was already seen as an octroi of the West, as well as an obstacle to development. The Eastern Bloc countries unanimously believed that environmental degradation was a problem of capitalism – which was true, but not exclusively – and wanted nothing to do with it. The "unspoiled nature" and environment of the global South was even considered a "comparative economic advantage". Pollution was seen as a sign of progress and Indira Gandhi's rhetorical question in 1972 – "Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?" – led to some misunderstandings. Stockholm '72 laid the foundation for catch-up, industrialized development to conclusively become the "geopolitical program of the postcolonial era" (Wolfgang Sachs). Industrialization, global division of labor (cheap labor in the global South), and growth would lead the way out of poverty, while high growth rates were the prerequisite for (social) redistribution – that was the mantra.   

None of the "negotiating blocs" ever challenged the promises of the Northern industrialization and consumption model. More environmental protection, yes. And definitely more growth, as this was seen as the only way to redistribute resources and pay for environmental protection. Accordingly, the South henceforth negotiated primarily on financial and technology transfers in all subsequent UN conferences.

Without a doubt, there have been sharp North-South political antagonisms throughout all global environment, climate and development negotiations. The South has rightly insisted that the North must massively reduce its emissions to leave the South room to maneuver. The political and functionary elites of the North and South also disagreed on what a just world economic order should look like. With the turn to neoliberalism in the early 1980s – the Reagan era – the industrialized North pushed through its ideas of global market liberalization via the organizations it dominated then, such as the IMF, the World Bank and later the WTO. For all their differences, the debate essentially revolved around shares of the respective pie, but not around the leading economic theory of the capitalist mode of production, the devastating ecological and social consequences of which were swept under the rug. Environmental policy was absolutely subordinate to world economic policy. It was a sectoral rather than a multi-disciplinary policy; moreover, environmental protection was understood primarily as a technological task. Concepts such as eco-development or liberation theologies that above all demanded rights for the poor and the satisfaction of basic needs on the basis of one's own resources, Ernst F. Schumacher's 1972 plea for a return to the human measure and his criticism of the increasing concentration of power in the economy, concepts of ecological economics – they were all relegated to the niche, not taken up politically, and sometimes ridiculed and met with derision.

The problem is bigger after all – but opportunities to change course were missed

The 1980s were full of clashing developments. Knowledge of global threats was growing and at the same time the age of neoliberal globalization was dawning. The first global reports of a looming climate catastrophe (Global 2000) were published and the need for action identified: The UN World Commission on Environment and Development was founded in 1983. And very little time passed between the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer and the adoption of the Montreal Protocol with its roadmap to phase out the hydrofluorocarbons that caused it.

In industrialized countries, we need to change our production and consumption styles as quickly as possible. Not only, but above all, our energy consumption seems irresponsible from a global perspective. We are undoubtedly the main cause of the climate catastrophe that is already looming. Willy Brandt, 1989

This realization by the former German chancellor is paradigmatic for everyone who knew or suspected that a real turnaround was needed in the way of doing business and consuming. In 1987, a commission of inquiry into the protection of the atmosphere was set up in the German Bundestag. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988, and a UN Conference on Environment and Development was scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

There was hope that the end of the East-West conflict could give rise to a new type of global cooperation on the great issues of humanity. Some even dreamed of a paradigm shift in the world economic order. Remarkably, the industrialized North actually acknowledged its historic primary responsibility for the ecological crises at the Rio conference; the Rio Declaration acknowledged that the Northern model could not be globalized and that there was no Planet B. The polluter-pays and precautionary principles were established, and Agenda 21 was agreed as a guideline for action in environmental and development policy, incorporating many key demands of NGOs and social movements.

It seemed like a programmatic breakthrough. But the neoliberal dogma – with massive backing by the US government – left its deep and consequential marks. US President Bush proclaimed that the American way of life was non-negotiable, and this was clearly reflected in the Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in Rio. The US did everything it could to remove any firm statement on CO2 reductions from the text, threatening to refuse to sign otherwise. The hegemonic power of the time thus prevailed. The United States did not sign the Convention on Biological Diversity because it ran counter to the interests of American biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

The (non)agreements in the UN climate regime of the years after 1992 are likely the most consequential. Clear reduction targets and timeframes would have created incentives for a systematic expansion of renewable energies and a circular economy worthy of the name. The agreements of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which were fatally flawed by their failure to provide for a differentiated climate protection commitment for all countries, also had serious consequences. China in particular continued on the path toward fossil fuels instead of renewable energies as a result. The great success of the Group of Developing Countries (G77) in Kyoto turned into a Pyrrhic victory.

The West, historically responsible for climate change, simultaneously failed and fully embraced the promises of neoliberal globalization. The business interests of the financial industry and the fossil fuel and agricultural multinationals, which did not want any bans, limits or government regulations, were the drivers of the great neoliberal turnaround.  With the founding of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994, which became a symbol of further liberalization, privatization, financialization and the securing of intellectual property rights, most countries abandoned a regulatory environmental policy committed to the common good. Marrakesh – where the WTO was founded – defeated Rio. Emissions trading, CO2 pricing, financialization of nature, technological innovation – exclusively economic instruments became the core elements of the green economy, as they became the focus of solutions and answers to the escalating crises, especially in 2012 at the last UN Rio summit.

The Paris climate agreement of 2015 – the agreement to keep average global warming to 1.5°C if possible – is nevertheless a milestone in global climate and environmental policy. Now more than ever, it is a matter of the "how fast" and, of course, the "how", period, in all policy areas. Climate policy is now a multi-disciplinary task for Germany's new governing coalition – a major paradigm shift. This could and should be a model for national and multilateral government action. If this really is going to be a transformation rather than a disruption in the restructuring of our production and civilization model, then we must act quickly. We don't have another fifty years.

Barbara Unmüssig was co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation until April 2022.

This is a translation of a text first published in the magazine Böll.Thema 50 years of international environmental policy.