Loss of biodiversity, global warming, the hole in the ozone layer – in the past fifty years, humanity has tackled major problems. But how did we do?
More than 1,200 representatives from 113 countries meet from June 5th to 16th in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. It is the time of the Cold War, and most of the Eastern Bloc countries do not attend the first United Nations Environment Summit.
The UN Conference on the Human Environment, with its motto "Only One Earth", is considered the start of international environmental policy. Only a few weeks earlier, on March 2, 1972, the Club of Rome, a worldwide association of experts from various disciplines concerned about the state of the planet, had published “The Limits to Growth”. It is a nondescript paperback with less than 200 pages, but it packs a punch. The authors warn that swift action is required. Their conclusion: "If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years." To many, this comes as a wake-up call. The Stockholm conference adopts 26 principles for the environment and development. Many countries subsequently set up environmental agencies. In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is established. The foundation for an active UN role in global environmental protection is in place.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is adopted.
In the beginning, a major focus was on protecting tigers, elephants and rhinos from trophy hunters and poachers. CITES, to which 95 percent of all countries in the world belong, now protects 37,000 animal and plant species from overexploitation through trade controls and restrictions. While this does not stop the decline in species, in which habitat loss is a major factor, it nevertheless provides a very effective international instrument against the commercial exploitation of protected species.
Soaring oil prices shock the industrialized countries.
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War against Israel, Arab oil exporters cut their deliveries, stunning industrialized countries that had been accustomed to cheap and seemingly unlimited oil flowing from the Middle East. Oil prices skyrocket. The learning effect? The search for alternatives begins – tentatively for solar and wind power, with an initial focus on nuclear power and new sources of oil, gas and coal.
Wangari Maathai founds the Green Belt movement in Kenya.
The Green Belt is the first green NGO in Africa run predominantly by women – and a mass campaign for tree planting, better environmental protection and more rights for women farmers. Maathai, a Petra Kelly Prize winner of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She said: "You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them."
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announces the first world climate conference in Geneva.
Scientists, politicians and government officials from 53 nations attend. The conference declaration states: "Long-continued reliance of society on fossil fuels as a principal energy source in the future, along with continued deforestation, is seen as likely to result in massive atmospheric CO2 increases in future decades and centuries (...) Our present understanding of climate processes leads us to recognize the clear possibility that these increases in CO2 may result in significant and possibly major long-term changes of global-scale climate". The present day proves them right.
The International Whaling Commission bans commercial whaling.
Whale conservation is one of the great success stories of animal and species conservationists worldwide. However, the ban has been repeatedly undermined by countries such as Japan.
The World Commission on Environment and Development is established.
The United Nations sets up the commission, which is chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway. Its mandate is to work out what sustainable global development might look like in the long term. Four years later, in 1987, the commission releases its report, "Our Common Future". Its first message is that the global environmental crisis is a threat to all humanity. The second is that a new quality of growth is needed that recognizes the limits of the planet. It calls for humanity to "make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Unfortunately, "sustainable development" is a key term that was not defined more clearly, becoming an all-purpose buzzword applied to very different goals.
The fourth reactor of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl explodes.
The world witnesses the largest nuclear accident to date. The spread of radiation makes it unmistakably clear that pollution knows no boundaries. In Germany, this leads to the creation of the Ministry of the Environment.
Ozone killers such as CFCs are banned.
The ozone layer provides protection against harmful solar radiation, making it crucial for human survival. The world is alarmed when scientists discover a gigantic hole above Antarctica and publish their findings in May 1985. The crisis shows what is possible when the world community recognizes a threat and responds as one: It decides to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances in most industrialized countries with the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which two years later became the Montreal Protocol. Since then, CFCs have disappeared from refrigerators, foams and spray cans. Despite setbacks, the ozone layer is recovering. To date, no other environmental agreement has been so successful. The reason for this is that substitutes had long been available, and the industry thus did not suffer any losses.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is established.
"Global Warming Has Begun", reads a New York Times headline. The media pick up scientists' warnings of global warming. In November 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Hundreds of scientists work for the organization. In various teams, they pore over studies from a wide range of fields, repeatedly summarizing the current state of knowledge about global warming, its causes, and its consequences, such as heat waves, droughts, heavy rain, ice melt and diseases. They meticulously analyze new research results on how and where global warming can be slowed, and where adaptation has become indispensable. They compile the results in status and special reports to provide clarity to government officials. In 2007, the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with former US Vice President Al Gore. Yet greenhouse gas emissions are not decreasing. In 2022, in its sixth report, the IPCC makes it unmistakably clear that only a quick and complete phase-out of all fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) can prevent total climate chaos. However, the scenarios on which the IPCC report is based maintain high economic growth rates and encourage hope in unproven technologies.
A global financial mechanism is developed.
The industrialized countries, which are responsible for climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution of water bodies and loss of fertile soil, give money to help developing countries solve environmental problems. This idea of environmental and climate justice is behind the international financing mechanism called the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which is based at the World Bank. Since its launch in 1991, 179 states have joined.
The parties to the Antarctic Treaty enter into agreements to protect the continent against exploitation.
Never before has such a comprehensive set of rules been developed internationally for one region of the world: The parties adopt the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, banning commercial mining for at least 50 years. However, some governments still have their eyes on the raw materials of Antarctica, the exploitation of which seems increasingly attractive to them as the ice melts.
The Earth Summit, also known as the Rio Conference, brings together 10,000 delegates from 178 countries and more non-state actors than ever before in UN history.
The state of the planet has never been more at the center of world politics than it is in June 1992: At the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 178 countries argue about how to fight hunger, poverty, environmental degradation and the growing social gap between industrialized and developing countries. The Rio Declaration is adopted, which for the first time enshrines the right to sustainable development worldwide. The signatories also commit to the precautionary principle, which calls for foresight and prompt action to prevent environmental pollution from occurring in the first place. They agree on conventions on climate protection, biodiversity (CBD) and combating desertification. And they adopt Agenda 21, an action plan for the 21st century. Among other things, it defines sustainable consumption as a goal. The follow-up process to Agenda 21 peters out in the following years. The conventions on climate and biodiversity are the outcomes with the greatest impact.
The ecological footprint is measured. It shows that humans are overloading the planet dramatically.
The Global Footprint Network updates the ecological footprint every year. In doing so, the scientists factor in everything that humans need to live – meat and seafood, wood and textiles, energy sources and infrastructure – and calculate the burden on the planet caused by the consumption of these resources. The result is the area of the planet necessary to sustain human lifestyles in the long term. The concept was developed in 1994 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees. The calculations show that humans are overburdening the planet to an alarming degree. For example, if people everywhere were to have the same lifestyle as in Germany, we would need three Earths to cover our resource consumption sustainably. The fact that this model puts the blame on consumers is a practical side-effect for resource-hungry corporations. One thing is clear: a turnaround is needed. Efficiency – and technical solutions to increase it – are therefore a hot topic. However, progress on this front is often canceled out by the fact that products such as cars are becoming larger and more powerful. Experts call this the rebound effect. A decisive step would be "sufficiency", which would involve an absolute reduction in resource consumption in economic activity. The term was first used in Germany in 1993 by the cultural and social scientist Wolfgang Sachs. Simply put, instead of making cars more fuel-efficient, for example, people should drive less or switch to other modes of transportation altogether.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is founded, and becomes the symbol of further neoliberal globalization, liberalization, privatization and financialization.
Its principles include securing intellectual property rights – not limiting all types of emissions or the use of resources. Marrakesh (where the WTO was founded) beats Rio. Environmental, resource and climate protection are subordinated to the dictum of globalization.
The Kyoto Protocol on global climate protection commits the most important industrialized countries to absolute reductions of greenhouse gas emissions for the first time.
However, the US and others do not adopt the protocol – a grave shortcoming. Developing countries are not committed to any reductions. The exit or non-entry into fossil fuels is not really addressed. Instead, market mechanisms for trading in pollution allowances are created – leading to devastating increases in greenhouse gas emissions in the following years.
A new Earth epoch dawns: the Anthropocene.
We have littered the oceans with plastic, heated up the atmosphere, altered the nitrogen cycle – changing the planet drastically in a short time. So why not name the epoch after humanity? In 2002, the Dutch chemist, atmospheric researcher and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, together with the American biologist Eugene Stoermer, coins the term Anthropocene, the human age as a geological epoch. In 2016, a working group of scientists also proclaims it at an international geological congress in Cape Town, South Africa. The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) now has the final say. Its decision is still pending. Critics of the Anthropocene term point out that it obscures the inequality between people and countries and the capitalist economic system as the cause of the environmental crises.
DDT is banned.
At the Stockholm conference on banning persistent toxins, representatives of more than 120 UN member states sign a convention to ban the substances designated as the "dirty dozen", including pesticides such as DDT.
The first World Social Forum is held in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
12,000 people representing 1,000 organizations take part in the gathering, which proclaims "Another World is Possible". It becomes a symbol for the anti-globalization movement.
International fair-trade organizations agree on a definition.
"Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations engage actively with consumers, in supporting producers, awareness-raising and campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade."
The World Summit on Sustainable Development convenes in Johannesburg, South Africa.
191 heads of state and government pledge, among other things, to halve the number of people without access to drinking water and sanitation by 2015.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment discovers that 15 out of 24 key ecosystem services examined are no longer intact.
Experts speak of externalization. This means that, for example, the death of bees and the associated crop losses are also moving into the public spotlight and onto the political agenda in the debate about the preservation of biodiversity.
CO2 pricing becomes the new paradigm of climate and conservation policy.
In Heiligendamm, Germany, the rich industrialized nations – at that time still the G8, with Russia – not only agree on a climate communiqué promising to "seriously consider" halving their CO2 emissions by 2050, they also commission Indian economist Pavan Sukhdev, formerly of Deutsche Bank, to calculate the economic value of animals, plants, ecosystems. The project: TEEB, "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity." The failure to protect the climate and preserve biodiversity is now supposed to be overcome by assigning a monetary value to CO2 and the services provided by nature and ecosystems. (For a critique, see Thomas Fatheuer on p. 26.) On the climate failure of politics and the associated economic costs, Nicholas Stern notes that climate protection costs less than doing nothing.
US author and environmental activist Bill McKibben founds the global climate protection organization 350.org.
The name refers to the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere that must not be exceeded if we are to stay under the 2°C target. The level is currently above this threshold, at 400 ppm.
The Copenhagen World Climate Summit is a failure. One of the few bright spots is the founding of the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
A mechanism called "REDD+" (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is put in place to improve forest conservation in future. However, it is criticized from the outset for its fixation on market mechanisms and disregard for the rights of local and indigenous peoples. Otherwise, the climate summit results only in vague agreements and a promise that has not been kept to this day: To enable poorer countries to engage in climate protection, adaptation and forest conservation, the industrialized countries pledge to provide developing countries with ever greater financial support, amounting to $100 billion every year from 2020. It did not work out that way. The $100 billion target, which will not be met until 2023 at the earliest, has repeatedly been subject to creative accounting by the inclusion of private funds. One of the few successes of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, however, is the decision to establish the GCF. As a multilateral fund, it is a key building block in the international climate finance architecture and essential for the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement.
A global agreement against biopiracy is adopted at the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan.
In future, companies that obtain medicinal and useful plants from developing countries or use traditional knowledge to produce medicines or other products that they sell worldwide, should share their profit "fairly" with the profitable plants' countries of origin. One example of this is rooibos tea from South Africa. Whether it actually works is unclear as much depends on the implementation at the national level. Frequently, the relevant contracts are not made public. The bigger problem is that this knowledge is now shared as digital sequence information (DSI), thus undermining the Nagoya Protocol – the whole system has been rendered obsolete by digitization. Negotiations on access to and benefit sharing of DSI on genetic resources is one of the sticking points that could still cause the negotiations on a Global Biodiversity Framework in Kunming 2022 to fail.
A nuclear disaster occurs in Fukushima.
At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, core material melts in three reactors on March 11 in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami. Germany decides to phase out nuclear energy once and for all – other countries do not.
The Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development aims to develop a global agenda for sustainability.
"The Future We Want" is the title of the roughly 50-page final document of the summit, which is again taking place in Rio and has the mission to develop a global agenda for sustainability. Henceforth, the "green economy" is to be considered a building block, one in which economic growth is not pursued with utter disregard to ecological dangers. One question has arisen since then: Is it really possible to decouple economic growth from resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions? Or do we have to question the economic dogma of "ever more" if we seriously want to stop them?
The Minamata Convention aims to curb mercury emissions.
Mercury is highly toxic and can lead to paralysis, birth defects, nerve damage and even death. 140 countries agree on the Minamata Convention to curb emissions of the heavy metal.
193 countries adopt the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN General Assembly.
It is a roadmap to a peaceful world, to end extreme poverty and hunger, solve environmental problems, fight inequality and injustice, and stop climate change. The 17 SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals that the UN had adopted in 2000. While the SDGs set a new standard, they are neither mandatory nor legally enforceable.
The Paris Agreement is finalized. All countries set their own climate targets, which become binding under international law.
In the conference building at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, 195 countries agree to limit global warming to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial times – or better still to 1.5°C – by 2100. All countries set their own national climate targets, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which become binding for each country under international law. The actual commitments are up to each individual country, however, as countries like China or the US would not have agreed to them otherwise. Furthermore, the sum of greenhouse gas emissions is supposed to no longer increase in the second half of this century; the countries intend to collectively produce no more than the ecosystem can absorb, reaching "net-zero emissions" or "greenhouse gas neutrality". This will mean burning less oil, keeping fewer cattle and draining fewer wetlands. Forests are to be restored and moors rewetted. Such "nature-based solutions" are a good thing in theory, but in practice they are unfortunately too often combined with offsetting and technofixes. The idea of "net-zero emissions" also inspires those who want to tackle the climate problem with risky and unproven geoengineering technologies.
The Gender Action Plan is adopted.
Women eat less meat than men. They fly less frequently on business trips. They drive less and are less prone to drive flashy cars. Women contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions. Women's work becomes harder, for example when droughts make the distances to fetch water longer. Women are often more dependent on public transportation, but little progress is being made on the shift away from cars to buses and trains. Men and women do not have equal rights, especially not in climate policy. Climate plans are not scrutinized with regard to who will profit from them. Women have less say than men in international negotiations. These are all points that the international GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice network highlights again and again. In 2017, a Gender Action Plan is adopted to accompany the climate convention agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit. The Paris Agreement also calls for gender equality, women's empowerment and intergenerational justice to be respected. The proportion of women in the committees, for example at the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, is an average of 33 percent and thus even lower than the level of the negotiations a year earlier.
Greta Thunberg begins her strike.
The 15-year-old Swedish girl sits down in front of the parliament building in Stockholm, alone with a sign: "Skolstrejk för klimatet". Her "school strike for the climate" gives rise to Fridays for Future: All over the world, students skip school on Fridays to demand better climate protection. Pressure on governments is increasing.
Climate lawsuits are succeeding.
In a suit filed by environmentalists, the oil company Shell is ordered in The Hague to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45 percent relative to 2019 levels by 2030. Six years earlier, a court had for the first time issued a ruling demanding more commitment to climate protection – from the Dutch government. The ruling arose from a suit filed by the environmental initiative Urgenda.
At a UN environmental conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in March, representatives from around the world agree to combat plastic waste on land and in the oceans.
A legally binding international agreement – one similar to the Paris Agreement with national action plans and a mechanism for financial support for countries that need help in curbing plastic pollution – is to be negotiated within the next two years. It's a weighty problem: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), all of the plastic waste produced in the world in 2019 alone weighs as much as 35,000 Eiffel Towers – 353 million tons. Plastic waste has doubled in just 20 years, and only the smallest proportion of plastic waste is recycled – a mere nine percent. The rest ends up in landfills, is incinerated, or is tossed somewhere and floats down rivers into the oceans.
The international community wants to adopt a new global agreement to protect biodiversity.
The Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) is intended to replace the Aichi targets and is to be adopted at the COP 15 in Kunming. However, due to the pandemic, the conference has already been postponed several times. The kick-off took place in October 2021 in Kunming – but with the exclusion of the broader international public. Since March 2021, negotiations on the GBF have once again been taking place as in-person meetings. Their outcome is uncertain.
This is a translation of a text first published in the magazine Böll.Thema 50 years of international environmental policy.