On a warm summer’s day 50 years ago, the world’s first environment conference was held in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
Born out of an 1968 UN General Assembly resolution calling for the holding of a global environmental conference, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment – also known as the Stockholm Conference – was held against the backdrop of the Cold War, and a rising environmental awareness, partly due to a series of environmental disasters. The run up to the conference – and indeed the conference itself – saw tensions between the Developed and the Developing World about their relative negative effects on the environment.
Yet despite this, the conference proved that multilateral cooperation on the environment was possible, and that there was a real hunger around the world to tackle these issues. The conference gave birth to the UN’s environmental arm, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and showed that transboundary problems such as pollution could be tackled effectively.
That landmark 1972 event was celebrated in Stockholm from June 2 to 3 during Stockholm+50. By recognising the importance of multilateralism in tackling the Earth’s triple planetary crisis – climate, nature, and pollution – the event aims to act as a springboard to accelerate the implementation of the UN Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, including the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, and encourage the adoption of green post-COVID-19 recovery plans.
The meeting also commemorated the 1972 Conference, and its influence on the global environmental movement. Its legacy is far reaching: The Stockholm Declaration, which contained 26 principles, placed environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialised and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water, and oceans and the well-being of people around the world.
It also put the environment on the political agenda: before Stockholm, no country had a ministry of the environment; by 2017, 164 countries had created cabinet-level bodies responsible for the protection of the environment.
Since that conference 50 years ago, there have been many environmental victories, a primary one being the development of international environmental laws. These include the International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) in 1973 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1975, and the Convention on Migratory Species in 1983, and the Rio Conventions (climate, biodiversity, desertification) in 1992 and the 2013 Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Other victories include the elimination of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which protects the ozone layer, the moratorium on whaling, and the reduction of acid rain in industrialised countries, and the ban on radioactive waste dumping at sea. The fact that these are issues not often mentioned today is testament to the transformative effect of these decisions.
Yet, some of the issues that emerged before and during the Stockholm Conference remain to this day, such as the disconnect between the Developed and Developing Worlds, and while there is a huge framework of environmental laws, enforcement is often an issue.
One key element of the 1972 Stockholm Conference’s final declaration was the idea that countries needed to work together on environmental issues, and that a healthy environment was essential for the long-term prosperity of developing countries, as well as the fact that every country has a duty not to pollute others. These facts ring as true today as they did then, and while much has been achieved in the past fifty years, much more needs to be done.
Six environmental victories in the past 50 years
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments. Today, it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 37,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats or dried herbs. While CITES is binding international law – signed by 183 countries and the European Union – it’s impossible to know the population estimates for many species, which makes agreeing on “sustainable” trade difficult.
The Montreal Convention (1987)
One of the most important multilateral agreements of the past 50 years, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer regulated the production and consumption of nearly 100 chemicals – including CFCs – referred to as ozone depleting substances. The Montreal Protocol was the first global treaty that dealt with the environment and showed what was possible with global cooperation and proved something of a template for future global environmental treaties.
Sendai Framework (2015)
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 was the first major agreement of the post-2015 development agenda and provides Member States with concrete actions to protect development gains from the risk of disaster. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDDR) is in charge of the Framework’s implementation.
The Paris Agreement (2015)
The United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP21, led to a landmark climate agreement. At the meeting in Paris 195 countries adopted the world’s first universal and legally binding global climate deal. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2˚C, and preferably to 1.5˚C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
The Minamata Convention (2017)
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a multilateral environmental agreement that addresses specific human activities which are contributing to widespread mercury pollution. It is named after the place in Japan where, in the mid-20th century, mercury-tainted industrial wastewater poisoned thousands of people, leading to crippling symptoms that became known as the “Minamata disease”. Implementation of this agreement will help reduce global mercury pollution over the coming decades.
Ending Plastics Resolution (2022)
Signed at the recent UNEA-5.2 conference in Nairobi, this resolution aims to End Plastic Pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. It’s an agreement that is utterly necessary: plastic production has risen exponentially in the last decades and now amounts to some 400 million tons per year – a figure set to double by 2040.