Sunday, June 26, 2022

50 years of UN environmental diplomacy: what has worked and future trends

In 1972, acid rain was destroying trees. Birds were dying from DDT poisoning, and countries grappled with oil spills, contamination from nuclear weapons testing, and the environmental damage of the Vietnam War. Air pollution was crossing borders and harming neighboring countries.

At Sweden’s insistence, the United Nations brought together representatives from countries around the world to find a solution. That summit – the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held 50 years ago in Stockholm on June 5–16, 1972 – marked the first global effort to treat the environment as a worldwide policy issue and define the fundamentals for its management. marks.

The Stockholm Conference was a turning point in how countries think about the natural world and the resources that all countries share like air.

This created the United Nations Environment Program to monitor the state of the environment and coordinate responses to major environmental problems. It also raised questions that continue to challenge international negotiations today, such as who is responsible for cleaning up environmental damage, and how many poor countries can be expected to do so.

The Stockholm Conference began on 5 June 1972.
United Nations Photo / Yutaka Nagata

On the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, let’s look at where half a century of environmental diplomacy has led and the issues emerging for decades to come.

Stockholm Conference, 1972

From the point of view of diplomacy, the Stockholm Conference was a major achievement.

It pushed the boundaries for a United Nations system that relied on the concept of state sovereignty and emphasized the importance of joint action for the common good. The conference gathered representatives from 113 countries as well as representatives of United Nations agencies, and made a tradition of involving non-state actors, such as environmental advocacy groups. This produced a declaration that contained principles to guide global environmental management going forward.

A UN video captured scenes in and around the Stockholm conference, including speeches by young protesters and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The Declaration explicitly acknowledged that “they have a sovereign right to exploit their own resources in accordance with their own environmental policies, and a responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control over the environment of other States”. or areas beyond national jurisdiction.” An action plan strengthened the role of the United Nations in protecting the environment and established UNEP as the global authority for the environment.

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The Stockholm conference also put global inequality in the spotlight. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi questioned the urgency of prioritizing environmental protection at a time when so many people lived in poverty. Other developing countries share India’s concerns: will this new environmental movement stop poor people from using the environment and reinforce their deprivation? And will wealthy countries that have contributed to environmental damage provide funding and technical assistance?

Earth Summit, 1992

Twenty years later, in 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro – the Earth Summit – provided an answer. It embraced sustainable development – ​​development that meets the needs of the present without compromising on the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This paved the way for political consensus in many ways.

A man in a Prithvi costume holds a child's hand on a beach in Rio.  photo 1992.  is of
United Nations conferences, such as the Earth Summit held on June 3–14, 1992, draw global attention to environmental problems.
Antonio Ribeiro/Gamma-Rafo via Getty Images, 1992

First, climate change was making it clear that human activities could permanently change the planet, so the stakes were high for everyone. It was imperative to establish a new global partnership uniting states, key sectors of societies and peoples to protect and restore the health of Earth’s ecosystems.

Second, economic development, environmental protection and social development were considered to be interdependent.

Finally, while all countries were expected to pursue sustainable development, it was recognized that developed countries had greater capacity to do so and that their societies put more pressure on the environment.

A young man holding a nuclear symbol on a contamination suit embraces another man wearing a gas mask in front of a dark depiction of Earth.
At the Earth Summit in 1992, youth opposed nuclear energy.
Antonio Ribeiro/Gamma-Rafo via Getty Images, 1992

The Earth Summit produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which lays the foundation for the ongoing global climate negotiations today; Convention on Biodiversity; non-binding forest principle; and a comprehensive action plan for the transition to sustainability.

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Progress, but bigger challenges ahead

Over the past 50 years, increased awareness of environmental challenges has led to the proliferation of national environmental agencies and the development of global environmental legislation.

The world has drawn together to stop the destruction of the ozone layer, phasing out leaded gasoline, and pollutants from burning fossil fuels that cause acid rain. In 2015, UN member states adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals with measurable goals and signed the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2022, countries are committed to developing a treaty to reduce plastic pollution. Climate change and sustainable resource use have also become a high priority in foreign policy making, international organizations and corporate boardrooms.

But while environmental diplomacy has demonstrated that progress is possible, the world still faces many challenges.

Greenhouse gas concentrations are still rising, and rising temperatures are fueling devastating wildfires, heat waves and other disasters. More than one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, potentially leading to the worst loss of life on the planet since the time of the dinosaurs. And 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds World Health Organization guidelines for pollutants.

The next 50 years: trends to watch

As environmental diplomacy moves into its next 50 years, climate change, biodiversity and impacts on human health are high on the agenda. Here are some new trends that are also being noticed.

The idea of ​​a circular economy is gaining interest. People produce, consume and throw away billions of tons of materials each year, while only a small percentage are recycled or reused. Ongoing efforts to create a more circular economy that eliminates waste and keeps materials in use can help mitigate climate change and restore natural systems.

Advocacy for the rights of nature and animal rights is becoming more prominent in environmental diplomacy.

Outer space is another topic, as it has become an area of ​​human exploration and settlement ambitions with the development of private space travel. Space junk is accumulating and threatening Earth’s orbital space, and the discovery of Mars raises new questions about the safety of space ecosystems.

The 50th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference today is an important occasion to think about development rights and responsibilities for the future to preserve and regenerate the earth using environmental diplomacy.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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